Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Monumentalism

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In describing Stalinist architecture, Jonathan Meades stated that it is the despot’s ideal to have a building that imprisons the mind without imprisoning the body. To facilitate this, Stalin had commissioned works that attempted to eschew western thought while stealing every western architectural idiom of god-worship – a hypocritical hodgepodge of the last few centuries of western architecture, a smash-and-grab of pre-modernist ethos in the service of Soviet modernism, rendered as near total surrender to ostentatious ornamentation and executed above all else in huge monumentalist scale.

The unbuilt Palace of the Soviets, a 1300-foot tall shrine to the living god that was its totalitarian dictator, is both the highest fantasy of such a creature and an odd polyp of history in that it has now been more than doubled in height by the shrine of a faceless consortium of oil magnates in the United Arab Emirates. The unspeakable grotesqueness of the communist pride has been eclipsed by the unspeakable grotesqueness of raw capitalism. It’s that facelessness that bugs me most.

It’s an even more faceless but otherwise just as monumentalist architecture that most defines our corporate capitalism today. Across the street from Rockefeller Center, that gleaming edifice of brand-name avarice that once commissioned famous muralist Diego Rivera before discovering that he was a communist (and even then, true to amoral capitalist form, not caring provided he didn’t show his communism; his fame was all that was paid for), is its post-war extension, uncreatively but aptly dubbed the “XYZ buildings.” At 700 feet, they’re notable for being some of the tallest buildings in America and on the Earth, but absolutely and utterly anonymous besides – not only are they invisible due to a plethora of similarly-sized buildings abutting them, but they are strikingly devoid of any hint of architectural ornament or style.

One can hardly even ascribe post-modern internationalism to them; their relationship with the style so muted as to not even bother filing the serial numbers off. They are a poor homage to the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, itself a poor homage to the Lever Building a few blocks up. They are, at heart, middle-brow inoffensive massings that do not attempt to communicate anything but their own conscious inability to ascribe any sort of ethos to their tenants. They are disposable because their tenants are disposable. Any corporation can come in, slap its logo on the side, and leave just as anonymously. And they do.

What they have in common, however, is that monumentalist scale. They dwarf their inhabitants, mute ambition, end thought of other ways. They are every bit as totalitarian as their diametrically opposed counterparts. They turn people into peons, as is their wont. As one such peon, it has been culture shock to not only witness but partake in such a facade. Never have I felt so alienated from my own goals and understanding of this city and what it stands for. I am not the only one.

There is a secretary (AA in bureaucraspeak, to match the EAs and MDs and EDs in CCS and WMA and IB; comprehension of these terms is not necessary for their continued use) whose beehive hairdo and Brooklyn Italian accent is so stereotypical one almost doesn’t notice her Ukrainian surname. She presents the good-natured, personable ideal of the archetypal lonely secretary, and her job of late has been to facilitate the ‘restructuring’ of half her department, which in the lingo of the hive of technicians, teamsters and low-level grunts is called a “churn,” as our jobs are to play a great game of musical chairs with the analysts, associates, and mid-level grunts whose jobs have just been destroyed.

She has taken to this task with such a well-coifed efficiency that it was at least a little shocking to us fellow minions to discover that she is ultimately one of those whose jobs are destroyed in this churn. It’s one thing to train your replacement; it’s another entirely to train your executioner. Our first impulse would be to sabotage the place, if not overtly than at least covertly; a one-person strike. Examples of such actions, however, are not forthcoming in her or anybody else. It speaks volumes that, when faced with even the bleak prospect of one’s own demise, the prevailing reality is still to march resolutely forward.

Her concerns, actually, were not of herself but of another worker in a different department that has taken up shop in her area of control. This man, a Nigerian trader my team calls Emergency Trousers for his propensity to have a full change of clothes under his desk, has already garnered a reputation of a thief and a swindler: He had at one point stolen a computer newly installed during another churn on the same floor and, when caught out that same morning, simply declared that it appeared abandoned. As this is an investment bank, where hard drives are routinely stored in little evidence bags for years in case of inevitable lawsuits, this constituted a serious breach of security but one that would not come to hurt him in the end. After all: He makes the bank money. He is untouchable.

Our team had, at the time, conferred with one another as to the best course of action. We decided to prompt him to quietly return it to its place of origin – if we touched it, chain of custody was upon us again and we would be held responsible for any malfeasance – so that we may not call security, for if we did, the response would be an allergic reaction, guards would be axed, and the floors locked down, rendering our jobs more difficult. He would get a light slap on the wrist. It is this man, the secretary discovered, that had more than just his trousers in storage on-site.

As she learned, he had commandeered half the closets on the floor with suitcases of clothing and sundries and took to sleeping in the conference rooms in her department. As workers toil 24 hours a day in the building, security had not noticed anything amiss, but upon reporting – she discovered the culprit as one of the suitcases held his tax returns – HR could do little but to force him to relinquish control of the closets. The churn was commonplace, expected, but this breach of decorum and protocol caused her to lose her trust in propriety. Yet it’s the complete facelessness of the environs that allowed it to happen in the first place. An interloper is Not My Problem; you can get fired for stealing a pencil, but the truly brazen is unseeable.

My department lives on the work generated by the mass firings and mass hirings of new fodder; the equipment and spaces allotted for the organization and reorganization of human resources, as scrubbed of their humanity as the building has been scrubbed of any it might have had. Clean. So some take up residence and squat on the premises from time to time, ostensibly. It’s fitting that this was noticed once we’ve already fumigated half the floor. It’s even more fitting that nobody cares enough to do anything about it: That takes true control.

Dem Hipsters

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A colleague of mine has been caught up in late in defining the exact nature of the world’s unease before him. In this exercise, he’s honed in on the image of the prototypical hipster as public whipping boy of all that is ill in the city: Look at this kid, he says; look how ignorant he is to the ebbs and flows of the city even as he disrupts them; vaguely political in a middle-class consumerist way. Vaguely bohemian in a middle-brow consumerist way. Look at how he’s blindly happy despite being so instrumental at making others miserable. Why should he be happy? He’s not in the know. He shouldn’t be happy. He should be miserable like the rest of us. Time to clip those wings.

This two-minute hate of some picture of a doughy fedora’d Asian man-boy with librarian glasses and skinny shorts is indeed an exercise for myself as well, for while I would have been right there hating this kid some time ago, I can’t bring myself to hate him now. this is partly due to the fact that I know that the biggest recipient of pain due to this kid’s lifestyle is himself, but partly due to the company I keep in hating him. “Hipster” is in a large way inextricable from “millennial,” and while I am just on the cusp between Gen X and the millennials, the sorts of criticisms I see levied towards him have been levied towards me most of my adult life: Oh, they’re so lazy, oh, they’re so self-absorbed, oh, their lives don’t revolve around getting and maintaining decent careers. Don’t they know that’s how you get ahead in life? Pull those bootstraps harder.

Of course, I can turn that right back on the critics: If any generation in this great nation can be criticized as self-absorbed, it’s the boomers. If anybody could fingered as to the ultimate source of all our social and economic ills, all eyes are on the boomers. Hell, Gen X told us that decades ago; that’s why they’re called Gen X. My colleague would likely point out that such typification is unfair and boomers are also feeling the pinch: If your career is derailed now and you’re in your fifties, you might as well save your family the trouble and kill yourself, ‘cause you ain’t bouncing back. There-in lies the rub, however: We’re more alike than not.

Of the dichotomy, I’m reminded of biking to work in the city. I do so not because of my health but because every day I bike is a day I stave off the necessity of buying a MetroCard at whatever extortionate rate the MTA is offering this time around. This is in marked contrast to the hipsters who do so as a lifestyle choice, flowing as they do up and over the Williamsburg bridge, skinny-fat waifs who don’t have the athleticism to really travel all that far but greatly cherish the aesthetic of the act, or the “Freds,” as the Bike Snob calls them, mid-life crisis men (and it’s always men) in body-condoms and three thousand dollar carbon-fiber toys hurtling down Riverside Drive, feverishly chasing their own mortality if not sense. Whose shortsightedness is to blame for our lot? Well, it helps to define our lot.

We’ve been in a housing crisis in this city since the Second World War, which is about the time we started Rent Control, and the reason is simple if far-reaching: All materials and efforts were to the war, so no infrastructure was being built – either in housing or transportation – so demand far exceeded supply. In order to keep workers near factories and thus producing the goods of war, rent control was imposed. Ever since, economic equilibrium was never achieved because it would mean the mass displacement of working-class New Yorkers. Right now, half of New Yorkers are benefiting from Rent Stabilization (after the easement of rent control) and the elimination of such a program would mean, effectively, deporting half of New York, a mass movement usually associated with war atrocities and genocide.

This is exacerbated by two generalist trends, ones I can impolitely refer to as I Got Mine, and Fuck You. The former has manifested through the downzoning of great swaths of the city, the blanket historical preservation of entire districts, and the utter hostility towards any infrastructural project that would stimulate growth. This started as a political movement in the sixties, and can be said to have a patron saint in Jane Jacobs, whose writings and lectures have been used as a call to arms against progress in the defense of neighborhoods that work. Well, that worked, since those neighborhoods end up victims of their own success when land values greatly exceed the means of their own (renting) residents.

The latter is the systematic disinvestment and disenfranchisement of anything said constituents deemed unworthy of consideration, and has manifested through structural cuts in city services (such as former mayor Koch essentially cutting off the Bronx to save the city’s budget during a fiscal crisis), the explicit redlining and steering of lending institutions against the largest Black community in the country, and general white flight to the suburbs – ironically a sociological truism that is now being questioned by certain conservative revisionists as part of the metaphorical (if not literal) whitewashing of the GOP as it loses relevancy in the new world.

Both are the sins of the boomer generation, and both can be said to have created what mayor de Blasio has decried as a tale of two cities: An urban dystopia segregated by class and race through both conscious and unconscious means. But let’s return to the hipster, because there are sins of the millennials as well.

New York has started growing again, despite the lack of available housing stock and infrastructural investment, through a millennial reverse white flight. Like the Gen Xers before them, they’ve moved into what used to be called the “inner city,” pejoratives and all, in search of a more urban and urbane lifestyle. Like the Gen Xers before them, this was mainly prompted by a rebellion against the economic realities that grow starker every year: If I’m going to be broke, I might as well be broke in a place that’s vibrant and fun. Because of the general lack of infrastructural investment, they’ve turned the city into a zero-sum battle of necessities which only the wealthy will win. What were mixed communities have become monocultures of whatever is most economically expedient: Families are being pushed out for young transients who themselves get pushed out less than a decade later. Roots are being ripped up and the land tilled over so often that none can grow again.

Despite being the most liberal city in America, judging from voting patterns, and boasting an unbeatable bull economy of high finance and media – in other words, despite being both civic-minded and rich – the city now has not only a housing problem but a homelessness problem that is unprecedented. As it turns out, in practice a lot of these younger transients are not only liberal but libertarian – at least, a form of libertarianism that imposes middle-class values on those who can’t afford middle-class values. Even while they foster an economic climate that they themselves cannot survive in, they turn around and tout the argument that those who complain the most aren’t making use of the options available to them. Disrupt more, market yourself better. Pull those e-bootstraps harder.

The card-carrying liberal retiree on the Upper West Side and the disruptive liberal hipster in Williamsburg have more in common than not. Hell, if the boomer mantra has been “I got mine and fuck you,” then the millennial mantra may be defined as “hurry up and die so I can get mine.”

Damocles

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“Your badge still works?” asked my boss, half jokingly, as I walk in the door to our office.

This is not the question one wants to hear first thing in the morning, this mock-incredulity coming from the fact that my initial contract had ended and my boss – well, one of my bosses – was finding it hard to justify my expense to his uppers due to work volume. According to some numbers, we’ve had two lean months in a row and that means staff reductions. This is, after all, the corporate way: The client company just posted above expected profits of two billion this quarter, due in no small part to staff reductions.

The humor of it is, I’ve been working copious amounts of overtime every single week for four months up until this point, because we’re woefully understaffed for the work volume, having already gotten rid of four employees during that same interim. This boss, a portly, red-faced New Jersey Republican who likes pinball and trips to Spain, a former frat bro gone to pot, usually prefaces any and all interactions with a “but if you find anything better, please don’t hesitate,” and is now openly joking about the Sword of Damocles hanging over my employment situation.

The sword which is held by him.

Everything is a learning experience. For instance, I learned that currying favor with the managing directors of the various departments within the client company has more to do with my employment situation than my own bosses. This boss of mine – let’s call him the big boss – is supposed to match employment concerns with work volume, which means predicting work volume and drumming it up if necessary. His ability to perform the former is evidenced by the abrupt staff reductions and the current skeleton crew. The latter actually falls to the technicians themselves, as they seem to have more direct participation with the clients who actually produce said workflow.

The small boss, the Jamaican lead technician newly promoted to the position, is supposed to manage staff around the actual workflow, except he must first ask the staff what workflow there is and how they’re handling it, as, again, they seem to have more direct participation with the clients who actually produce said workflow. Their combined jobs, therefore, can be said, if one wanted to be cruel, to be to reap paychecks for other people’s labor. Marxism 101.

I also learned, due to the loose lips of the big boss, how much his contracting company is paying my employment agency for my services. It came in a roundabout way, when he was kvetching about how much cheaper I’d be if they’d just found me a permanent position in his contracting company – a process that takes six months to a year of this indentured servitude, if all goes well – and the answer is I’d be 40% cheaper. To put that another way, the employment agency who matched me with this job has, for its efforts in making a single phone call back in January, been collecting two fifths of my paycheck since then, and will continue to do so for another two to eight months if I last that long.

I hesitate to ask what the client company is paying for my services.

Its managing directors, however, are probably the closest thing I have to proper bosses. It’s their tasks I must accomplish, it’s their favor I must diligently keep, it’s their mouths that must retain and utter my name. Throughout most of the day, indeed, the workflow comes straight from them to the techs, skipping all manner of protocol and hierarchical structure in the way. That can be worked out in the back-end, they say; we need this now. We techs rank them on how closely they keep their word in such matters.

Their workflow of late has largely been predicated on staff overhauls, which means staff reductions. China apparently isn’t as bullish as certain analysts would like, therefore huge chunks of several departments are being axed. And when they’re axed, people need to pick up the pieces, which is my department’s job. In the sense that I’ve managed to survive this long, outlasting my coworkers while putting an obsequious face and responding quickly to various oddball inquiries, I’m beginning to feel like a shark – especially in that I’m spending a lot of time bottom-feeding.

But whatever animal I call myself, it’s not my stomach that grows fat off my feeding.

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  • Published: May 5th, 2015
  • Category: Society
  • Comments: 1

Crashing

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It’s two in the morning and I’ve just woken up to find myself walking down a quiet street, cognizant only of pre-war tenements to my left, a highway in the distance to my right and the street numbers that pass me by. 223rd. 222nd. 221st. Oh, good, I’m only a mile from home. My phone’s GPS corrects me that I’m actually somewhere in the north Bronx and it’s more like seven miles. I’d call a cab, but I’m flat broke until Wednesday. I see a train station two blocks away. Apparently I’m near the 2 line.

It’s four in the morning and I’ve just woken up to find myself at the Harlem terminus of the 3 line. Putting two and two together, it would appear I transferred to an uptown local without checking first if it was a 1 train.

It’s four thirty and I’ve just woken up to find myself on a downtown train at 110th Street. I panic and leap off, expecting to catch the next uptown train. My mistake: It’s 110th and Lenox, not 110th and Broadway. I’m still on the 3 line. A woman approaches on the station platform and states that she’s a registered nurse and I don’t look so hot. I tell her I need sleep. Don’t we all.

It’s six in the morning and I’ve just woken up on the 1 train as it pulls in to the platform two stops past mine. At least I’m in the right neighborhood now. The problem is, I have to leave for work at seven.

It’s ten in the morning and I’ve just woken up on my bed, fully clothed, to the phone ringing. My boss is calling me, asking where I am.

I just fucked up.

Piecing together what I did this morning is harder than piecing together what caused this to happen. I can point to the 55 hours’ work, not including the full day Saturday, that I’ve entered on the past week’s timesheet for a job that doesn’t pay all the bills. I can point to the moonlighting I’ve done the previous Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings to make ends meet, the ambush job interview on Thursday ratcheting up the stress, or of the moonlighting gig that left me in Midtown at midnight this fateful Monday.

But all I can think of is that this crash will not only cost me a day’s lost wages, but may label me as unreliable to a shortlist of my contracting employer’s coordinators and clients, the volume of whose work justifies my continued employment. I’ve forgotten to check after myself, because, as my coworkers have repeatedly advised and admonished, nobody else will.

Maybe, I think, I’m just not cut out for this cut-throat dog-eat-dog economy. But then, I wonder, who could possibly be?

Broken Men

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Working overtime at the annex – one of the slowly atrophying appendages of the gangly octopus strewn across Midtown – as part of the ongoing musical chairs project for one department or another, I was under the tutelage this time of a portly jigsaw-toothed Barbadian who goes by the name Lefty Communist (or Gay Communist, as the case may be; political and social liberalism seemingly inextricable in the two-party system of US politics) whose niche was, effectively, liaison between this satellite and the main office.

It became readily apparent why: It kept him away from direct supervisors, and it kept direct supervisors away from him. He had steadfastly determined to lower management’s expectations of his productivity so as to keep in line with his income, which has stagnated these past few years – but then, for whom has it not? Nevertheless, this personal work slowdown, this one-man strike, is tolerated due to a confluence of reasons largely predicated on bureaucratic malaise and confrontational disengagement. Discontent can become contagious, after all; best not to poke the beast.

In the annex, however, he’s transformed from this mumbling, work-averse lump to the Pied Piper. Almost immediately the initial assigned task is put on the back burner and instead he collects maintenance men, local contractors and day laborers for a multiple-floor odyssey for the mana of the working stiff: Free food. He knows what he wants, and seeks it out with a single-minded focus for which he has attained a reputation and followers. Call it one of the perks of the position: Like sharks, we bottom-feed; snapping up the slow and that which is not long for this world, with little or no regard for its original provenance.

The salaried workers get a host of noshables so as to keep them in the office, some catered and some dry and keepable, like Dilbert’s food pellets or Futurama’s Bachelor Chow, most of which gets tossed out around four in the afternoon. Show up right before then and it’s a smorgasbord of bagels, wraps, coffee, soda, trail mix, cereal, fruit – if it’s prepackaged it’s just stolen wholesale. Indeed, for a corporation with no loyalty to its staff, why show deference to established convention? Hell, nobody espouses this position more than the salaried workers themselves, who actively exploit any boon today knowing full well there may not be any tomorrow.

The same is true for the day laborers. The motley crew he has assembled for this task come from several different contractors and employment agencies and, while they all more or less know each other, they jump from one or the next like rats trying to figure out which ship has the fewest leaks. This week Weehawken. Next week Trenton. The following week White Plains. An existence that sees a lot of reverse commutes, odd hours and, you know it, free food. Such and so got a good gig as a locksmith for X company, $80k and union; such and so got laid off last week. Sad thing, too – he was saving up for a vacation. It’s okay, though; he’s living with his girlfriend so can survive long enough to land another gig or three.

It’s certainly a common enough feeling: One of my work boots, after this annoying and near-endless winter, has sprung a leak, and I can’t get it fixed until I’ve dug out of the hole I’m in thanks to the string of bad deals with moonlighting gigs two months ago. The toll the jobs are taking on my wardrobe is real enough, and the appearance of professionalism is more important than actual professionalism, so as such free food is now part of the budgetary process.

Lefty Communist is cancer, though. A man mentally checked out, stuck in his own bitterness, poison by association. A blood cell stuck in the calcified arteries of an unhealthy industry. It’s easy to see how one gets like him. It’s easy to see how enough of him will eventually bring the system down, and it’s clear to see how if that happens it will be due to the policies of the system, not men like him. But to accept and adopt his means is to be brought down with him. Just as one can see generations of children abandoned by the school system like so much chaff, so too can one see men burned to nothingness by the work system, for a lot of heat but little progress.

Unworlds

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It took a bit of looking to find it, alone along empty streets of no-man’s-land bound by train yards and highway cloverleafs. Highly rated on Yelp – a dubious pedigree, considering the crossed purposes of for-profit standard-bearers – this supposed venue boasted a critically acclaimed mixologist (strike one) and otherwise acceptable if ill-defined atmosphere. She was curious as to its provenance, so off we braved the lack of 7 train service past Queensboro Plaza, owing to the East River being under construction or some such; those station loudspeakers are still rather garbled.

The only marker amidst the darkened empty warehouses of its existence was a spartan neon sign flashing BAR, BAR, BAR in that manner evocative of cheap faux-wainscoting, shot & beer combos and ubiquitous AC/DC on the jukebox. Perhaps at one point it was exactly that, but at this day the inside could not be more different. We were immediately confronted with a line ending at a surly black bouncer, beyond which lay the skinniest possible false-nostalgic impression of a steampunk gin joint under which the brightest light could not have been more than 40 watts. Perhaps this was to hide the prices on the primarily vodka-based fruit juices on offer, or the fact that the bar could not be more than six feet from the opposite wall. It was hard to estimate how packed it was because all of two people together would have made it difficult to pass by.

The uniformly white, upper middle class transients that comprised the venue’s clientele hammered the point home well enough: It was the best bar in the neighborhood because it was the only bar in the neighborhood, which is just as well, because it wasn’t a neighborhood. Stuck near the bathroom with the choice of getting on a separate waiting list for the tiny seating area or pushing to the bar, we took the third option and left. The bouncer took notice of the expression on her face, a fellow traveler shocked by this Brave New World, and with a shrug commiserated: “I know.” We made our leave to a night lit up by harsh blue lights dangling off of cranes hooked to half-finished 40-story condominiums, a surreal world in Long Island City made possible through Bloombergian downzoning of just about everywhere else and the fact that empty warehouses don’t vote. It was the kind of place you could spend well over a million on a shoebox and not have a supermarket within a mile of home. Buy stock in FreshDirect and Seamless while you still have the chance.

She talked of a mutual friend who had sought to buy into this new edifice of artifice, which required necessarily doubling up to afford the egregious costs but came with a surprisingly long laundry-list of restrictions: Leases which stipulated approved pets, approved usage of the advertised amenities, approved guests. One would think of meddling petty-bourgeois landlords as described by Kafka, haranguing the hapless protagonist for returning home at odd hours, or perhaps of the board members of West Coast suburban subdivisions that enforce fence height and house paint. The property manager’s ideal tenant must presumably be a cypher of the everyman, with no friends or hobbies or interests except paying on time, and indeed preferably absent altogether.

Actually, that describes 432 Park Avenue perfectly.

We reverted to a night on the town in Jackson Heights, the perennial opposite: The land of casual racism between social equals – equally disenfranchised – the bubbling burps of the American melting pot, the drone control of the corporate underclass. Sitting in a Midtown elevator listening to a white-haired Puerto Rican elevator man tell a black porter that Obama had just hosted Puerto Rican leaders at the White House so he could announce his extermination pogrom, to which the porter replied that that’s not what he heard: He heard Obama was a closet Puerto Rican and the black thing was an act. Then off to drink in Queens listening to a Filipina complain about how offensively super-macho Colombian men were.

It’s all very Avenue Q “we’re all a little racist,” at least if you ask white people – well, more than a little if you mention the Hasidim – but such mutual enmity disappeared earlier when we were eating at a Polish restaurant in Greenpoint, witnessing the theatrical haranguing the waitstaff were administering to one over-loud large group of neighborhood neophytes. Then, there were only two races: Yuppie white, and everybody else.

It also describes how Brian Williams got such a large ego that he could bend reality to his will. After all: Look at where NBC’s offices are – the Rockefeller Center complex accessible through a warren of corporate tunnels, lobbies of major firms stitched together to the point where one need not take a single step on a public sidewalk with the uncontrolled. Even in this, the ungovernable city, sections can be walled off to their own unreality, provided one has enough money – an indictment of the current Gilded Age if ever there was one – Long Island City becomes the complement to such a bastion: The non-neighborhood for the shadow district. The blank slate that can more simply and easily be cleansed.

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