(Editor's note: Today is my 24th anniversary of being a computer programmer. I started workng in the I.T. field on July 6, 1987. Over the past year, I've decided to document my life as a programmer in the hopes of making a book out of it. You might think a book about being a programmer would be deathly boring, and under normal circumstances, you'd be correct. But I've had an entire career of insane things happen to me, from being attacked by customers AND wild animals to being accused of heinous crimes I didn't commit.
Over the past 5 years, I've been travelling the world for work. A lot of adventures have happened as I interacted with different cultures and different locales. I chose a chapter from the section of the book dealing with my current job. This is the first time anybody is setting eyes on this besides me, and it's certainly rough draft, but what the hell, I said I'd do this today so here it is. I don't have a name for the book, so I've affectionately taken to calling it The Odie Wears Prada. While I head into New York City for my yearly Scotch toast to my career, please read and enjoy!)
The Perils of Being Named Odie
I was christened Odie the same year I started working in I.T. I have a college buddy to thank for that. “Odie” played on the theory that, unlike Garfield’s absurdly stupid dog, I was actually pretty damn smart. ‘Twas a nomenclative paradox similar to a 300-lb Puerto Rican being called “Flaco,” or akin to my fellow one-eyed bruva man Tiny Lister being “Tiny” despite his 6’5” frame. My collegiate nickname was the first time I’d been given a moniker that wasn’t derogatory, so it stuck. In life, I’d been called “Professor,” “Four-Eyes,” “Wannabe,” “Fat Face,” “Dead-eye,” “Popeye,” “Bucky Beaver” and “Odell Glasses.” A yellow cartoon dog was a promotion in class. So Odie I am, and Odie I shall be forever more.
Until 2001, only my friends called me Odie. I was Odell, which is my middle name, at home, and I used my government name at school and work. My boss at the hedge fund I'd just been hired at asked if I preferred my first or middle name, and when I acknowledged I liked Odie, she put it on my business cards and my nameplate. I figured it would be easier to spell and remember, but I was wrong. I’ve been mistaken for Opie, Okie, Otis, O.D. and most commonly, Oddie. I used to correct people, but I learned to let it slide after a violent altercation between me and the woman who made my nameplate at a dot.com at which I contracted after the hedge fund. She brought me a nice sign that spelled Odie “O.D.”
Politely, I said, “um, my actual initials are W.O., if we must use the initials format. But my name’s spelled O-D-I-E.”
The woman, a pissed-off looking sistah with an icy stare, snatched the nameplate from my hands. Sensing her anger, I tried to diffuse it: “It’s OK,” I said nervously. “I’ll hang this on the cubicle wall. Perfectly fine!” I reached for it, attempting to take it back and let bygones be bygones. I’ve made a career out of angering Black women, but never for anything this minor. “It’s really nice,” I said, grasping at straws of forgiveness.
The sign, which was a piece of plastic with paper letters stuck on it, couldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes to make. But this woman responded as if I’d pissed on her masterpiece. “I’ll just make another goddamn sign,” she said through clenched teeth. Then, as dramatically as possible, she slammed the plastic identifier across her raised knee, snapping it in three pieces. One piece flew up in the air, landing behind her. The other two pieces came flying at me from her destructive hands. One hit the desk and the other flew behind it. I heard her muttering obscenities as she stomped off. As I stood there, frozen in shock, my cubicle neighbors looked at me with “you shouldn’t have done that, dude” expressions on their faces. I started to wonder if everybody in the office had misspelled names on their signs, so as to avoid Sign Sistah’s wrath. That guy’s name isn’t Mike, I thought. It’s probably Jason.
The next day, this mousy young man brought me the corrected sign. He stuck it on the cubicle wall without saying a word, looked at me with sad eyes, then walked away. I did my best to avoid Sign Sistah my entire tenure at the dot.com.
I still have the corrected sign. It’s sticking on my fridge, along with all the other magnetic name plates I’ve collected in my career.
Odie has always been a troublesome name for people to deal with, but a German customer took it to a new level of confusion.
In 2008, I was tagged to visit Germany to teach a training class on our 5 software products. I’d never been to Germany, so this was new and exciting for me. My aunt was stationed on an army base in Wiesbaden, and I thought it would be nice to visit her while I was on business. However, I was going to be in Landshut, the capital of Lower Bavaria, and not to the Frankfurt area where Wiesbaden resides. My Wiesbaden visit in 2009, which offered me a chance to visit the base, is another story.
As with my Japan visit, I immersed myself in learning about my destination. I bought a travel book on Munich, which covered Landshut, and I spent a pretty penny on Berlitz books and CD’s so I could learn German. Unlike Japan, I would not be functionally illiterate in Germany. German uses our alphabet, so if I couldn’t understand it, I at least could try to read it. There were some freaky letters, including a funky looking B that sounded like an S, but for the most part, I was dealing with recognizable letters in some very long ass words. Pen, for example is der Kugelschreiber, and the United States is die Vereinigten Staaten. The perky sounding woman on the CD’s made it sound so easy to say these words, and she was not judgmental when I constantly screwed them up. “Keep trying until you master these difficult phrases,” she assured me. “Lady, I’m so screwed,” I told her.
Mark Twain was no help, either. Huck Finn’s creator has a famous piece called The Awful German Language. America’s greatest satirist riffs on all manner of permutations on why I was having such a hard time pronouncing half the things I heard or read. If Twain had been alive, he would also have gotten a kick out of my accent, which sounded like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice and Danny DeVito’s Jersey honk. It took me several days just to properly hiss the word for I, which is ich.
In five weeks, however, I became rather adept at German. I learned the difference between vierzig and vierzehn, how to ask for directions, who, what, when, where and why, all my pronouns, and most names for food. I committed to memory how to ask for beer. I knew how to interact at the hotel, on the street, in the office and in the bars. V sounds like F and W sounds like V. G sounds like K at the end of words, so Guten Tag is actually Guten Tak. I figured out how to be sociable, to introduce myself, to flirt, and how to ask for things well beyond the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. Since I expected to continue my track record of being hit on by men in every country and continent I have visited, I learned from Berlitz that bist du schwul means “Are you gay?”
Most importantly, I learned the words I did not want to hear. I speak fluent Spanish, halfway decent French, pathetic Japanese and, as I would soon discover, average German. The first word I learned in all these languages is nigger. In fact, I can accuse myself of coonery in 9 different languages. Food items I despise or am allergic to were also committed to memory, as was every single cuss word I could muster. And yes, I mastered saying die Vereinigten Staaten.
“If it is too hard to say die Vereinigten Staaten,” said the Berlitz lady after I’d mastered it, “you can just say die U.S.A.”
“Thanks a lot, lady!” I growled at the car stereo.
The day before I flew Lufthansa to Munich, I went to a German restaurant. I spoke German, ordering for myself and my best friend. I made small talk with the waitress, telling her I was going to Germany and wished to practice what I’d learned. She was very nice to me, gently correcting my pronunciation and offering up more conversational ways of saying things. She provided me a sense of confidence for which I’ll always be thankful, because I wound up speaking German a lot in Landshut whenever I went out on the town.
Normally, I have a kickoff phone call with my customers. The Landshut project was an exception, as I was in California prior to heading to Germany. With a 9 hour time difference, phone calls were going to be problematic. So my EMEA project manager introduced the client to me via E-mail. My client contact, Ralf, recommended a hotel for me and even arranged for a car to pick me up from Munich airport. Call me crazy, but I was most excited by this; I always saw people holding up signs with surnames on them at the airport, and I’ve ALWAYS wanted someone to do that for me. You haven’t arrived in the travel world until your name is broadcast on a shitty cardboard sign being held up by a disinterested looking driver. With my luck, my name would be misspelled and, when I pointed that out, the driver would tear up the sign before trying to run me over with his car.
Ralf told me I’d be training 8 people, and that they all understood English. I told him I’d taken the time to learn as much German as I could, and would be willing to employ it where necessary. Thrice in our Email correspondence, Ralf suggested that he come pick me up at the hotel on Monday morning to bring me to the office. I found this odd, as the office appeared to be on the same block as the hotel. But the numbers were far apart. so I assumed the distance was not walkable. We were going to start at 9, but Ralf wanted to pick me up at 7:30 or 8. I wrote back suggesting 0800 hours and he agreed. “Am greatly looking forward to meeting you,” he wrote.
On the flight to Munich, I plugged in my CD player and listened to all four Berlitz CD’s again. I looked through my books and also practiced a little with my seatmate before he went to sleep. Upon landing, I couldn’t wait to get through customs so I could see my name in lights--I mean, on a sign. Sure enough, there was a gentleman in the baggage claim area holding up my father’s last name on what looked like one of those cardboard inserts you find in undershirt packages. It was ghetto, to be honest, but I’m ghetto too, so it was copasetic.
My driver didn’t speak too much English, and he was as hesitant to use what he knew as I was to speak German to him. But I broke the ice, and when he realized I knew something about his native tongue, he went off. I tried to follow him as he told me about Landshut and his family. I told him, as best I could, about myself and asked him about the Autobahn. It was something of a farce, as the difference in speed between his dialogue and mine was like the hare vs. the tortoise. But we understood each other, and I even coaxed a little English out of him in spots.
At the hotel, which was a small place with four stories and no elevator, the front desk did not speak English at all. Thankfully, Berlitz Lady had beaten into me all manner of hotel dialogues. The woman at the front desk was dressed in traditional Bavarian garb, and she told me about the breakfast they offered every morning and that my room was on the fourth floor. The word for room was easy for me to remember—Zimmer, like Hans Zimmer. Einzelzimmer, in fact, a single room. And this room was TINY!
In the room was a small single bed, an area for me to sit, my TV and desk, a tiny closet and my bathroom. There was an apple on the desk, a fitting tribute to my reason for being there. An apple for the teacher, I thought. There was also a banana. I didn’t know whom a banana would be for, so I said “and a banana for the pervert.”
My room didn’t have an iron, and since I had suits to wear, I called down to the front desk and asked for a bügeln. A tall German gentleman, about 20, brought it to me. I ironed my suit pants, jacket and shirt, hanging them in the little cubbyhole that served as my closet. Then, I went out into the street in search of food.
The front desk wrote down some directions for me to find the center of town (thank God, as it was easier for me to read and consider than listen and interpret). It turned out to be a wonderful area I’d explore more during my week, but my first impression was somewhat jarring. There were all these old buildings, hundreds of years old. From their second stories up, they were these wonderful old buildings. On their ground levels, however, were invasions of the current time: McDonalds, banks, H&M’s.
Most things were closed, as this was Sunday, so I was faced with either Mickey D’s, The German Version or finding something else to eat. I went to Mickey D’s, which is customary for me: I’ve gone to McDonalds in every country I’ve found one, and the food is always better than it is in America. They also always have weird shit. In Tokyo, they had Shrimp McNuggets and McSushi. The German Mickey D’s had burgers named after American cities. They had the New York burger, the Chicago burger and so on. Leave it to Ronald McDonald to make me feel homesick—and I’d just gotten to Germany. I hate clowns.
Since I was out, I decided to try and find the office building. It was on the same street as the hotel, and though the address numbers were about 2000 apart, the office was 5 blocks away. “Does Ralf think I’m stupid?” I asked myself. “Granted, I’m not a native German speaker, but I can look at the street signs!” And why did we need an hour to walk 5 blocks? I chalked it up to German efficiency; they like to be on time.
When I got back to my room, I turned on the TV. Flipping the dial, I settled on a channel with a German stand-up comedian. Half his act was in English, the other half in German. Shockingly, I understood the German parts, and the guy was pretty damn funny. When his show went to commercial, I got a taste of just how much more liberal German TV is than American free TV.
Basic Instinct was coming on Freitag (that’s Friday) at 8. The commercial comes on, and the first scene of it is Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs. Uncensored. “Jeez!” I said in shock. “Now I don’t have to watch the movie!” The commercial was a tightly edited montage of uncensored murder and sex from the movie. If CBS got upset over a titty, their transmitter would have spontaneously combusted after this commercial, and the German phone sex commercials would have made Edward R. Murrow dig himself out of the grave. This naked woman holding a phone appeared on my TV, imploring me in German to call her for a good time. “Why the hell do I have to call you?” I asked the TV. “I can SEE you!” Every commercial for the next 15 minutes was naked women holding phones. One of them even sang a song in English, her awful breast implants staying motionless as she danced around. The optical effect of her moving body and stationary tits made me dizzy.
I liked Germany already.
I’m surprised I didn’t fall out of that little ass bed during the night. It was a comfortable piece of furniture, but also the smallest bed I’ve ever inhabited. My Blackberry woke me up at 7 AM. I did the three S’s (shit, shower, shave) and put on my suit. While tying my tie, the phone rang. It was the front desk telling me that Ralf was downstairs waiting for me. “Danke,” I said before hanging up. I checked my tie, made sure I didn’t miss any spots shaving my head and face, grabbed my apple and my PC and headed downstairs.
I saw Ralf before he saw me. A tall, blond gentleman with a nicely groomed goatee. Like me, he was dressed in a suit. I’m a tie junkie, so whenever I see a nice tie, I want to know who made it and where I can get it. I also noticed a nice cologne emanating from his person. I don’t normally wear cologne, but this smelled like it might give women amnesia about the way I look. Of course, if I asked Ralf about his cologne and his tie, he was liable to respond with “bist du schwul?” Maybe I’ll ask later, I thought.
Approaching the front desk, I met the same woman who checked me in the day before. She remembered me, not a hard feat considering there probably aren’t too many bald headed, one-eyed Black men in Landshut. She pointed to Ralf, gesturing that he was the party waiting for me. I went up to Ralf and introduced myself in English.
“Hello, I’m Odie,” I said to his back.
Ralf turned around to address me. When he did, I saw the smile on his face immediately disappear. In fact, he looked stunned, then disappointed. He tried to play it off, smiling uneasily, but the damage had already been done. I’d seen his initial reaction. My hand seemed to hang in the air for an eternity before he took it. He was staring at me in what I swore was disbelief.
“Hallo, I am Ralf,” he said. “Shall we go?”
During the walk, Ralf said nothing to me. No small talk or anything. His gait was that of a dead man walking. I was still too stunned to speak. My mind raced. What was the issue? Is it my eye? Then I got paranoid. Is it my skin color? It could only be one of those two things. Ralf knew I was American, but my name doesn’t exactly scream Negro, and how would anyone who has not seen me know I have a blind eye? It had to be one of those two things, and considering that I kept catching Ralf looking at me out the corner of his eye, it had to be something relating to my physical appearance. He couldn’t be dissing my suit, because I looked damn good and my shirt and tie matched. I put my sunglasses on and continued the walk.
When we got to the office, Ralf used his card to open the door. Then he spoke to me for the first time since we left the hotel. “It’s a lot of stairs,” he told me. I got my exercise this week. Between the four flights at the hotel and the five flights at the office, I must have gone up 3 million stairs during my tenure. At the top of the stairs was a conference room. We entered, and in the room around the table were seven gentlemen, all impeccably dressed in suits and ties. They looked like GQ magazine had come to life. I walked into the room, and Ralf told the guys, “This is Odie.”
Everyone looked at me, and every single face in the room registered the same way Ralf’s did when I told him who I was. They looked at each other and then back at me.
The room went deathly silent.
“Oh fuck this,” I thought. “They’re reacting like this because I’m Black! I have sunglasses on! They can’t see my eye! Son of a bitch! It has to be that.”
There was some German muttering. I was too distraught to try translating it—I was just listening for that word. Blazing Saddles popped into my head:
“The Teacher’s a Ni-(train whistle)!”
Ralf tapped on the table and asked for everyone’s attention. He had each of his team introduce themselves and tell me how much experience they had with the software. Each man spoke, in English, and while they were not disrespectful, they all sounded sad. When the introductions got to me, I spoke of my many years of experience as a programmer, and my 3 years at my current company. I assured them I knew the software and that we’d have a fun, informative class. I kept coming back to my knowledge on the subjects I’d be teaching, as if to reassure them.
An awkward silence filled the room as Ralf helped me set up my laptop with his projector. I started projecting the slides and talking. I only use the slides for the students’ benefit; I rarely read them, opting instead to freely improvise about the projected topic in my lecture. I do exercises on my PC and on the whiteboard, and I also assign exercises to the class.
About an hour into the class, one of the students raised his hand, interrupting me.
“Yes?” I asked. “Do you have a question?”
“Um,” he began, “I don’t mean to offend…”
“Oh shit,” my brain said, “here it comes…”
The businessman paused, looked down, and said in a low voice:
“But we thought you were going to be a girl.”
I blurted out my response before my brain could censor it. “What the hell gave you THAT idea?”
Ralf put his hand up, silencing his colleague. He turned to me.
“Odie is usually a hot French girl,” he said. “At least over here.”
“But, you spoke to me on the Kickoff Ca—" I began before remembering that this customer had not had the standard Kickoff Call. We’d done all our correspondence via Email. I was relieved that my skin color and my eye had nothing to do with Ralf’s response, and a little embarrassed for thinking it. Ralf showed up early at the hotel because he thought he might get some from Odie the Hot French Chick! In Europe, businessmen still dress up, but I bet these guys put on their best suits in preparation for Odie the Hot French Chick.
“Odie is usually short for Odile,” said another gentlemen. Odile, like Odell, is a Creole name. Odile is, in fact, the feminine version of my name, as I would later learn. Looking out at the sea of disappointed faces, horny programming nerds who cleaned up real nicely in the hopes of some spank bank material in the guise of a software trainer, I felt horrible. I’d never wished I was a girl before, but so help me, I felt so bad that I wished I could have turned into Josephine Baker. With my banana skirt and my bare, perky sepia toned tits, I’d dance around the room singing “JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-OOOH! JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-JAVA-OOOH!”
That wasn’t going to happen.
“I’m sorry, boys,” I said. “But even if I went back to the hotel and put on a dress, I won’t be a hot French chick. Most programmers are men.” They nodded. With our misunderstanding finally resolved, I taught my class for the rest of the day.
The next morning, I put on another suit and walked to the office on my own. After climbing about 4,000 stairs, I once again found myself in the conference room. This time, however, I was met by a bunch of far shabbier looking guys. Nobody had a suit on but me. Hell, some of them didn’t even have shoes on. They were wearing flip flops and wife beaters. One guy’s hair screamed out for a comb. It looked like these guys had just rolled out of bed!
“Ain't this a bitch!” I thought. “They got all decked out for me yesterday, but now that they know the truth, they come in looking like THIS?! I’m not hot enough for them to continue to look DECENT?!!” I was mad as hell.
“You don’t have to dress up,” said Ralf. “We tend to wear jeans here, unlike most German companies.” Jeans? I thought “That fool over there looks like he’s in his boxer shorts!” I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Yesterday, this conference room looked like Baptist church. Today it looked like Animal House.
No matter. I taught the class and, at the end of the week, Ralf and his group were comfortable enough with me to take me out to a biergarten and show me a good time. They gave me lessons on Bavarian beer and cuisine, and we laughed and joked like old friends. We got real drunk, but even through beer goggles, I still didn’t look like a hot French chick. And it was just as well; they wouldn’t have paid attention to the lecture if I had been Odile and not Odell.
After this experience, whenever my EMEA project manager requested me to do a project for his European customers, I always reminded him:
“Make sure you tell the customer that I’m a boy!”