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Stop That Bus (I Want to Get On)

What if the feeling you’re feeling when that Peninsula-bound luxury shuttle rumbles by isn’t resentment or hatred? What if it’s envy? The ballad of the left behind.

It’s 6:45 on Monday morning in Noe Valley, and, as usual, I’m pumping away on a stationary bike in a storefront gym. The spin class instructor’s iPhone is plugged into a portable speaker, hip-hop lite urging us on. I’m breathing hard. I feel good. Suddenly, light splashes across the room—a bus has pulled up outside, its towering sides reflecting the morning sun. Pure white and spotless. Dark-tinted windows. No label, but an LED sign over the door: “GBUS TO MTV.”

Two or three people in their 20s who’ve been waiting outside, accompanied by their well-behaved dogs, climb aboard. Then the door eases closed and the bus glides away, heading 35 miles south to the immaculate town of Mountain View, to the Googleplex.

I keep on pedaling, going nowhere, nagged by the question that’s been dogging me the past several months: Was that the future leaving me behind?

The corporate perk I just witnessed has become an achingly familiar one in these parts, and a noisy, flashy metaphor for whatever we feel about the tech industry in our midst: annoyance, resentment, paranoia, even something like hate. In the Mission district in May, affordable housing protesters bashed a piñata in the shape of the Bus; in June’s Pride Parade, another group of activists leased a white bus as part of an elaborate, unflattering parody of the techies; and no less a social critic than George Packer in the New Yorker called the Bus “a vivid emblem of the tech boom’s stratifying effect in the Bay Area.” There is nothing like a shining white chariot sailing through the streets to remind us on the sidewalk that we are not the anointed. The implication pisses off a fair number of San Franciscans.

But what if you don’t hate, or resent, or self-righteously mock the Bus? What if you want to be on the Bus? What if, when you are pedaling madly at 6:45 in the morning and watching the Bus pull away, the emotion you feel is not anger, but envy?

My own fixation on the Bus began in April, when I lost my job at age 54. For more than 20 years I’d survived in the tempestuous media ocean by surfing jobs from reporter to critic to editor. For the last dozen years I had been a high-ranking magazine editor—first in the Midwest, then in New York, and ultimately here—helping steer some of the industry’s biggest and most lucrative powerhouses: Better Homes and Gardens, Oprah, Sunset.

I was a success in a profession that was growing less successful every day. Print media, as we all know, is on a downward trajectory, its audiences increasingly distracted, its advertising revenues diverted into all things digital, leaving us print people watching anxiously as our staffs shrink and our budgets crumble. When Steve Jobs held up the first iPad almost four years ago, I got editor goose bumps—that was where everything that I put together, words and images and ideas, would live. That was exciting. But rather than streaming me into a digital expansion, my job more often involved trimming line items and laying people off. Finally, unable to reinvent my calling fast enough, I was shown the door myself.

A New York recruiter I’ve known for years called me when she heard that I was job-free. “Now’s your chance!” she said, meaning that I now had the opportunity to exit the death spiral of print publishing once and for all. She sounded almost jealous. At the time, it made me feel a bit better about getting fired. But I still wasn’t clear on how to turn the situation into some kind of luck. In the old world, I had mastered the rules and the etiquette and the language of career advancement. Now all of that seemed less certain. All I knew was, I wanted to be on the side that is reimagining the new, not defending the old.

“I just picked up The New Digital Age,” my friend said. “You should read it.” Written by Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and coauthor Jared Cohen, and subtitled Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, the book is over-the-top bombastic. The authors set out to “explore the future as we envision it, full of complex global issues involving citizenship, statecraft, privacy and war.” All of these things and more—world hunger! hair salons!—will be radically transformed, they say, by technology. And that’s just the book’s introduction.

“What happens in the future is up to us,” the authors write. Us? I’m elated: They’re including me! In the past, my inner journalist would have rolled her eyes at such pronouncements. But after years of watching my own profession erode, I’m willing to defer judgment. I could use some optimism.

I start my new unemployed life in accordance with multiple online job-hunting articles and the advice of a career coach: Recast the résumé into tech-speak (I’m no longer an editor—I’m a content strategist); start the networking engines; ramp up the LinkedIn activity. I look into classes on social media marketing, coding, online multimedia. I resolve to tweet at least once a day. In a burst of positive thinking, I even find a listing for a product marketing manager job at Google that might, maybe, match my skills. I fill out the online application and click Send. Hey, Mr. Schmidt! What happens in the future is up to me!

But the next morning on the spin bike, as I watch the Bus pull away, I’m hearing a very small but definitely nervous voice in my head: Maybe I’m too late.

Page 2: Tech industry reality versus "the magical unicorn castle thing."