Chapter 2

I RECOGNIZED HALF THE FACES AT THE TASTING. ANTOINE AND Trez, who worked at Dr. Jay's in the Bronx. Hiro Wakata, a board under his arm and headphones around his neck big enough to wear while parking an airplane with orange flashlights. The Silicon Alley crew, led by Lexa Legault behind chunky black eyeglass frames and clutching an MP3 player (made by a certain computer company whose name is a fruit often used in making pies). Hillary Winston-hyphen-Smith, having slummed her way over from Fifth Avenue, and Tina Catalina, whose pink T-shirt bore a slogan in English clearly composed by someone who spoke only Japanese. All of them looked very central casting.

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I always felt a little out of place at these things. Most kids my age give away their opinions for free, thrilled just to be asked, so they never make it into the paid-focus-group circuit. As a result, Jen and I were the youngest people in the room. We were also the only ones who weren't dressed to represent. She was in Logo Exile uniform, and I was in cool-hunting camouflage. My non-brand T-shirt was the color of dried chewing gum, my corduroys the gray of a rainy day, my Mets cap {not Yankees) was pointed exactly straight ahead. Like a spy trying to blend into the crowd or a guy painting his apartment on laundry day, I avoid dressing cool for a focus group, which I figure is like showing up drunk to a wine tasting.

Antoine bumped my fist with his usual, "My man, Hunter," as he checked out Jen, wincing at the basketball under her arm, obviously thinking she was trying way too hard. But when his eyes caught her sneakers, they filled with pleasure.

"Nice laces."

"I saw them first," I said firmly. I'd already phoned the picture to Mandy, but if Antoine got a good look at them, the pattern would be spreading across the Bronx like a nasty flu. Or maybe they'd fizzle; you never knew.

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He spread his hands in surrender and kept his eyes above her ankles. Honor among thieves.

I asked myself again why I had brought Jen here. To impress her? She was more likely to be seriously unimpressed. To impress them?

Who cared what they thought? Besides a handful of multibillion-dollar corporations and five or six trendy magazines?

"New girlfriend, Hunter?" Hillary of the Hyphen was also checking out Jen but in a completely different way, her blue eyes glazing over at Jen's Logo Exile ensemble. Hillary's black dress, black bag, and black shoes all had first and last names, their initials wrought in tiny gold buckles, and, like her, came from Fifth Avenue. She saved me the trouble of a comeback. "Oh, that's right. There wasn't an old one."

"Not as old as you, I'm sure," Jen said, not missing a beat.

Antoine whistled and spun on one heel with a squeak, clearing the deck. I pulled Jen over toward the chairs at the far side of the conference room, inside Mandy's clueless force field, out of range of Hillary's hundred-dollar claws (per hand).

"Hi, Hunter. Thanks for coming." Mandy was in serious client-wear, red and white and swooshed all over. She was peering down at the conference room's control panel, perhaps intimidated by its spaceship complexity. She pressed a button, and blackout curtains jumped into motion, closing across the sixtieth-floor view of Central Park. A tentative stab later, wooden panels slid apart on one wall, revealing a TV that probably cost more than a Van Gogh but was much flatter.

"This is Jen."

"Nice laces," Mandy said, not bothering to look down, giving me the Nod. I saw a printout of my Jen-shoe photograph tucked into her clipboard, headed for mass production.

I sat Jen down and whispered, "She approves of you."

"This is all very weird," she answered.

"Duh."

Hillary Hyphen, who had recently reached the big two-oh, managed to close her mouth just as the lights began to fade.

The ad was set in the standard client fantasy world. It was nighttime and raining, and everything was wet and slick and beautiful, blue highlights gleaming from every metal surface. Three client-wearing models were in motion, each leaving their glamorous job to the beat of some German DJ's last-week remix of a song older than Hillary. One of the models was riding a beautiful motorcycle, another was on a bicycle with about fifty gears, and the last one (the woman, I noticed, these things being important) was on foot, her swooshes splashing through puddles reflecting Don't Walk signs.

"Oh, I get it. Run," Jen whispered.

I chuckled. There are only about twelve words in the client's language, but at least everyone is fluent.

Guess what? The three models were all headed to the same cool bar, which looked like a cross between a velvet couch factory and an operating room. They all ordered gleaming non-brand beers, looking thrilled to see each other, energized by their glamorous journeys across the fantasy world.

"Moving is fun," I whispered.

"Fun is good, ' Jen agreed.

The ad came to a tear-jerking end, our heroes leaving their beers untouched, having decided to keep moving. I guess they were going for a ride/run together? Wouldn't that be a little awkward? Whatever.

The lights came up.

"So"  -  Mandy spread her hands - "what do we think about 'Don't Walk'?"

It's funny that ads have titles, like little movies. But only the people who shoot them - and people like me - ever find out what those titles are.

"I liked the motorcycle," Tina Catalina said. "Japanese street bikes are way back."

Mandy's eyes went to Hiro Wakata, Lord of All Things with Wheels, who gave her the Nod, and she checked off a box on her clipboard. I'd thought American was in, but apparently the motorcycle gurus had decided otherwise.

"Skate remix," Lexa Legault offered, and the rest of the cyber-geeks nodded. The German DJ had their vote.

"A'ight shoes," Trez said, just to fill a brief silence. He and Antoine would have approved them months ago. Shoes that didn't make it in the Bronx were shipped off to Siberia, or New Jersey, or somewhere like that.

And besides, this tasting wasn't really about the shoes. It was about how all the little elements of the fantasy world added up or didn't.

"Was that Plastique, where they wound up?" Hillary Hyphen said. "That club is so last April."

Mandy checked her clipboard. "No, it's someplace in London." That shut Hillary up. The client was very clever, shooting the street scenes in New York and the interiors on another continent. You never wanted too much reality leaking into fantasy world. Reality gets old so fast.

"So we liked it?" Mandy asked the group. "Nothing felt wrong to you guys?"

She looked around expectantly. Spotting cool was only half our job. The more important half was spotting uncool before it made trouble. Like a race-car driver, the client worried more about crashing and burning than winning every lap.

The room stayed silent, and Mandy started to lower her clipboard happily to the table.

Then Jen spoke up.

"I was kind of bugged by the missing-black-woman formation."

Mandy blinked. "The what?"

Jen shrugged uncomfortably, feeling the eyes on her.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," I said, even though I didn't.

Jen took a slow breath, collecting her thoughts. "You know, the guy on the motorcycle was black. The guy on the bike was white. The woman was white. That's the usual bunch, you know? Like everybody's accounted for? Except not really. I call that the missing-black-woman formation. It kind of happens a lot."

It was quiet for another moment. But gears were spinning. Tina Catalina let out a long sigh of recognition.

"Like the Mod Squad!" she said.

"Yeah," Hiro chimed in, "or the three main characters in..." He named a certain trilogy of movies about cyber-reality and frozen kung fu whose title ends in an X, counts as a brand, and therefore will not grace these pages.

The floodgates broke. More comic books, movies, and TV shows tumbled off everyone's lips, a dozen stuffed-full pop-cultural memory banks rifled for examples of missing-black-woman formations until Mandy looked ready to cry.

She smacked the clipboard down.

"Is this something I should have known about?" she said sharply, sweeping her eyes around the table.

An unhappy silence fell over the conference room. I felt like an evil genius's henchman when something goes wrong in a certain series of secret agent films - as if Mandy might push a button on the control panel and we would be ejected, chairs and all, out the roof and into some lake in Central Park.

But Antoine cleared his throat and saved us all from the piranhas. "Hey, I never heard of this missing whatever before."

"Me neither," said Trez.

Lexa Legault had been tapping at her wireless notebook and said, "I got nothing. Zero relevant hits on..." She named a certain Web search tool whose name means a very large number. (Oh, forget it. I'm not going to get very far telling this story if I can't say "Google.")

"It's not a big deal," Jen said. "It just popped into my head, you know?"

"Yeah, like who watches The Mod Squad anymore?" Hillary Hyphen said, ending her eye roll with an exquisite glare at Jen. Hillary looked happy, at least, to see us kids put in our place.

The flush in Mandy's cheeks began to fade. She hadn't let the client miss a trend, a vital new concept, a youthquake. This was just some random thought that hadn't existed before today's meeting.

But as things wrapped up and Mandy paid me (for both of us, it turned out), she gave me a cold look, and I realized that I was in trouble. Something had been invented here that was going to spread. By the very nature of the meeting, the MBWF had had its last day of Google anonymity. The client would have about a week to get this advertisement on and off the air before Jen's rampaging new turn of phrase made it look its dated as a seventies cop show.

Mandy's look was telling me that I had done something inexcusable.

1 had brought an Innovator to a cool tasting, where only Trendsetters were allowed.

Chapter 3

AT THE TOP OF THE PYRAMID THERE ARE THE INNOVATORS.

The first kid to keep her wallet on a big chunky chain. The first to wear way-too-big pants on purpose. To wash jeans in acid, stick a safety pin in something, or wear a hooded sweatshirt inside a leather jacket. The mythical first guy who wore his baseball cap backward.

When you meet them, most Innovators don't look that cool, not in the sense of fashionable, anyway. There's always something off about them. Like they're uncomfortable with the world. Most Innovators are actually Logo Exiles, trying to get by with the twelve pieces of clothing that are never in or out of style.

Except, like Jen's laces, there's always one thing that stands out on an Innovator. Something new.

Next level down the pyramid are the Trendsetters.

The Trendsetter's goal is to be the second person in the world to catch the latest disease. They watch carefully for innovations, always ready to jump on board. But more importantly, other people watch them. Unlike the Innovators, they are cool, so when they pick up an innovation, it becomes cool. A Trendsetter's most important job is gatekeeper, the filter that separates out real Innovators from those cra2y people wearing garbage bags. (Although I've heard that in the 1980s, there were some Trendsetters who actually started wearing garbage bags. No comment.)

Below them are the Early Adopters.

Adopters always have the latest phone, the latest music player plugged into their ear, and they're the guys who download the trailer a year before the movie comes out. (As they grow older, Early Adopters' closets fill up with dinosaur media: Betamax videos, laser discs, eight-track tapes.) They test and tweak the trend, softening the edges. And one vital difference from Trendsetters: Early Adopters saw their stuff in a magazine first, not on the street.

Further down we have the Consumers. The people who have to see a product on TV, placed in two movies, fifteen magazine ads, and on a giant rack in the mall before saying, "Hey, that's pretty cool."

At which point it's not.

Last are the Laggards. I kind of like them. Proud in their mullets and feathered-back hair, they resist all change, or at least all change since they got out of high school. And once every ten years they suffer the uncomfortable realization that their brown leather jackets with big lapels have become, briefly, cool.

But they bravely tuck in their Kiss T-shirts and soldier on.

The unspoken rule was that Mandy's meetings were for Trendsetters. Or at least people who had been Trendsetters before Mandy hired them. Once you get paid for being trendy, who knows what you are?

A cool hunter? Market researcher? Scam artist?

A big joke?

But Jen was no joke, whether she got fifty bucks for her opinion or not. She was an Innovator. And, as I should have expected, she had committed the original sin of having uttered an original thought.

"Did I get you in trouble?" she asked on the street.

"Nah," I said. (Nah is Hunter-speak for yes.)

"Come on. Mandy was about to spit her pacifier."

I smiled at the image. "Okay, sure. You got me in trouble."

Jen sighed, eyes dropping to the gum-spotted street. "That always happens."

"What always happens?"

"I say the wrong thing." Sadness had settled into Jen's voice, which I couldn't allow.

I took a rant-sized breath. "You mean, whenever you wind up hanging out with some new crowd and they're all agreeing with each other -  about the new movie they all think is great, or the band they all love, or whatever is most recently super-cool - you find yourself uncontrollably saying that it's actually crap? 0ust because it is.) And suddenly they're all staring at you?"

Jen stopped right in front of the NBA store, openmouthed, framed by the merciless windowscape of team logos. I squinted in the glare.

"I guess so, yeah," she said. "I mean, exactly."

I smiled. I'd known a few Innovators in my day. It wasn't the easiest thing in the world to be. "And so your friends don't know what to do with you. So you shut up about it, right?"

"Well, that's the thing." She turned, and we kept walking downtown through the post-work crowd. "I never really got the shut-up-about-it part."

"Good for you."

"Which is how I got you in trouble, Hunter."

"So what? It's not like they can fix the ad with a re-edit. And it's too late to reshoot the whole thing. It would be worse if you'd said the white guy's tie was too wide. Then they'd actually have to do something."

"Oh, that makes me feel better."

"Jen, you shouldn't feel bad about this. You were the only one up there saying anything interesting. We've all done a hundred of those tastings. Maybe we've gone soft."

"Yeah, and maybe there was an MBWF thing going on in that conference room, too."

"There was?" I looked up at the skyscraper still hanging over us, and my memory flashed through all the faces, all the neighborhoods, cool I groups, and constituencies represented at the tasting. I slotted each participant into his or her place on the cool Venn diagram.

Jen was right: the whole focus group had been one big missing-black-woman formation.

"I hadn't even noticed."

"Really?"

"Really." I had to smile. "That makes it even better that you spoke up. Maybe it's not what Mandy wanted to hear, but it's what she needs to hear."

Jen was silent as we took the stairs down into the subway, swiped our cards to make the turnstiles turn.

On the platform we faced each other, close in the rush-hour crowd. Around us were guys with their jackets over one arm in the summer heat and women who'd changed into sneakers with their office attire. (I always wonder: who was the Innovator on that one? How many ankles and arches has she saved?) Jen was still looking down, and I watched her expression shifting, her furrowed brow and green eyes mobilized by another internal debate. I had the stray thought that she probably made silly faces at little kids on the subway when their parents weren't watching | and was really good at it.

She crinkled her nose in the hot smelly air. "But didn't you just say it won't make any difference?"

I shrugged. "Not for 'Don't Walk. But maybe next time - "

My phone rang. (Down in the subway! At the risk of product placement, those guys in Finland do make good phones.)

shugrrl, said the display.

That was fast, I thought.

And standing there, pretty sure I was about to get fired, a funny thing happened. I found myself not caring about the job, the money, or the free shoes, but really angry that it was happening right in front of Jen and would make her feel crappy all over again to have cost me my biggest client.

"Hi, Mandy."

"Just got off the conference call. The ad airs this weekend, no changes."

"Congratulations."

"I told the client about what you and your friend said."

I started to open my mouth to say it hadn't been my idea at all. But that wouldn't have done any good. So I swallowed the words.

"They were intrigued," Mandy said flatly.

A train went by on the other track, and the conversation took a ten-second pause. Jen was watching me carefully, still with the bad-smell expression on her face. I mimed confusion for her.

The train rattled away into its hole.

"Intrigued as in pissed off? Intrigued as in hit-man hiring?"

"Intrigued as in interested, Hunter. They were glad to see some original thinking."

"Hey, Mandy, no reason to get personal. I just take pictures."

"I mean it. They were interested in what you said."

"Not interested enough to change the ad."

"No, Hunter. Not interested enough to reshoot a two-million-dollar ad. But there's this other thing they want your help with, an issue that actually needs some original thinking."

"It does?" I gave Jen a puzzled look. "What kind of issue?"

"It just popped up last week. It's sort of weird, Hunter. A big deal. You have to see for yourself. And you've got to keep it secret. How's tomorrow?"

"Uh, I guess it's all right. But it wasn't really me who - "

"Meet me at eleven-thirty in Chinatown, Lispenard and Church, just below Canal."

"Okay."

"And bring your new friend, of course. Don't be late."

Mandy disconnected. I dropped the phone into my pocket.

Jen cleared her throat. "So, I got you fired, didn't I?"

"No, I don't think so." I tried to imagine Mandy meeting me in Chinatown and whacking me over the head, dropping me in the Hudson sealed in concrete. "No, definitely not."

"What did she say?"

"I think we got promoted."

"We?"

I nodded, finding another smile on my face. "Yeah, we. Doing anything tomorrow?"

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