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Sirois: So Say the Waiters

A new book details—and invents—Baltimore subcultures

Photo: Michael Northrup, License: N/A

Michael Northrup


Waiting is the absence of control. When we wait, we are always waiting for something outside of us to happen. It can be tortuous, exquisite, or both. Justin Sirois makes the most of this feeling—mixing it with a DeLillo-like reflection on technology and an up-to-the-minute portrait of Baltimore—in his new book, So Say the Waiters.

“The thing is, everyone is a Waiter in an airport, in a way,” says a minor character early in the book. “They’re all being held hostage from one point in their life . . . to the next point. In that time between, they can become whoever they want to be.”

It is this insight that makes kidnApp, a smartphone app that allows users to sign up to be abducted, so powerful. Users of the app, the titular Waiters, become more alive when they cede control of their lives. They set the parameters of the abduction—for how long they will be held, what will happen—but there is a 48-hour window in which the Taker (as the highly trained kidnappers are called) can kidnap them.

“What was most miraculous was how drastically the world changed once she submitted. What a simple thing. A submit button and a GPS tracker in her pocket. The will to surrender and wait. Every stranger became a thrilling prospect—a spy—an agent looking for the most opportune time to clasp her mouth and shut her eyes and carry her away,” Sirois writes of his main character Dani’s experience.

And for the local reader, that revelry is particularly delightful because Dani’s world is so deeply embedded in contemporary Baltimore. She works at a bar much like the former Sonar, lives at the Copy Cat (though it remains unnamed), rehearses with her band at Hour Haus, and hangs out at the Windup Space. She reads City Paper while waiting for someone at a bar and is constantly worried about her bike—her sole mode of transportation—getting stolen. There are even some nice scenes of an African-American lesbian who rides with the High Noon Boyz but is never entirely accepted by them because of her gender.

The DeLillovian aspects of kidnApp fit beautifully into this portrait of How-We-Live-Now Baltimore. The app, which uses GPS, also functions like a social media site, allowing users to read about and rate the abductions of others, and, as on Growlr and other hook-up apps, see who, in their vicinity, is also waiting. It all feeds the sense of tension and the loss of control. There is a sexual element to it, but it is not entirely erotic. In one of Dani’s dozen or so kidnappings, she is abducted from her bike, which is carefully stowed in a van, and taken, bound and blindfolded, to a room where she is tied to the bed.

“And then she heard the clasps of a case being unlatched. Dani curled her toes. She rubbed her legs together. The cat walked over her head and down her side where it lay, warm, by her feet. . . . The hum of the bow hit a viola’s strings. Gentle at first. Steady and long. Dani grinned. A viola, she thought. . . . Dani, riveted, curled her legs, stretched, and swooned.

Her Taker played for over an hour before taking a break.”

When the Taker finishes, Dani hugs and thanks him.

This kind of experience—and the mundane moments when Dani is in control of her own life—creates one of the poles of experience Waiters works around. The other end of the experience is that of the Takers. Or at least that of a reluctant Taker named Henry, whose college roommate, Steve, founded the company.

Henry, a vaguely Republican computer programmer with a safe government job, lives in the suburbs, is a wreck after his girlfriend leaves him, and can’t pay his mortgage. Steve buys him a first-class ticket to Los Angeles and offers him a job as the company’s mid-Atlantic manager. But he has to work as a Taker first to see what it’s like.

Steve has grown obscenely wealthy off of kidnApp, which he sees as an ideal business. “The thing is, most people that own the app, they fill out their form and never submit,” he explains. “People are paying five dollars a month just to have the ability to do it, just to have the access. They don’t have to actually commit. It’s about the fantasy just as much as the act.”

Part of the book’s drama comes from Henry’s inner struggle with the ethics of the company, but the reader never doubts that he will take the job. Henry’s real purpose here is as a kind of comic relief. He is the perfect foil for Dani’s urban lifestyle. He can’t parallel park and is frightened of getting lost in the city where he knows only “the typical sports bars flanking the stadiums.” He is also completely incompetent as a Taker—when he kidnaps a blind woman and puts her in the trunk, his car is rear-ended—until, near the end, when he meets Dani.

Sirois, also a poet, is well on his way to becoming Baltimore’s most important novelist. (His first novel, Falcons on the Floor, details the journey of two Iraqis trying to escape the battle of Fallujah. [“Beyond the Front,” Feature, Dec. 16, 2009]) But I’ve hesitated to call So Say the Waiters a novel because the paperback version is comprised of the first five “episodes” of the complete project—which Sirois estimates may equal 15 or 20 in all. So, while we are left somewhat unsatisfied at the end of these first five episodes, which end where Dani and Henry’s worlds collide, that seems to be the point. It doesn’t matter so much that the books were first released electronically—despite the certain parallels with the app inside the book—as it does that it was released episodically. Because by the time we reach the end of the first book, wondering how things will unfold between Dani and Henry, we have become Waiters and given ourselves over to Sirois’ world.

Sirois will have a book signing Nov. 30 ay 7:00 p.m. at Atomic Books. For more info, visit sosaythewaiters.com

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