“Mr. Williams?” said the man, inquisitively.
We were seated across from each other in a sparse conference room. The kind that shouts ‘start-up’ in the 21st century. The man’s name was Jonas Feickart and he was the CEO of Steam 21 LLC.
“Yes,” I answered politely. I wasn’t sure why there was a question – I’d included my name in the letter.
“Mr. Williams,” Mr. Feickart said more decisively, “Did you design the model you sent us?”
Seated in the middle of the conference table, weighing on its articifial bones, was ‘the model.’ It was a compact steam engine. And, in my opinion, it was almost the perfect design.
“I did,” I answered.
“Well, Mr. Williams,” Mr. Feickart continued, “I’ve asked you to come in today because I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, you know the project we’re working on – high-performance, high-efficiency, steam-driven cars.”
“Well,” he continued, “We’ve been looking to perfect what came before. Did you know a Stanley Steamer built in 1906 did 127 miles per hour?”
I knew, and I nodded.
“Well,” he continued, “We didn’t beat that until 2009. Imagine what the designers of that 1906 car could do with modern technology. That is our concept. Take those old ideas and just re-engineer them with modern materials and parts.”
He’d given the speech a million times.
“Turns out,” he continued, “It isn’t so easy. Those old timers may not have had much, but they knew what they were doing.
“And then,” he waved his hands expansively, “You come along and send us something that just seems generations ahead of anything that’s ever been built.”
“Why?” he asked, “Why did you send us your model?” He seemed genuinely confused.
“I want a job,” I answered, truthfully.
“A job?” he asked. “You don’t want an equity position or something like that.”
“I’ll take that too” I answered smiling. Fact was, I would have taken just about anything.
“And why wouldn’t I just take your design,” asked Mr. Feickart.
I was ready for that one. I could play to his better nature, but I knew his type. He didn’t have one.
“I gave you a flawed design,” I answered, “I can make it better. And when I do, there’s nobody in the world who knows better than I how to make it part of a functioning system. You work with me, and you’ll get something you’ll never find anyplace else.” None of that had been made up.
Mr. Feickart nodded. His company had raised $150 million in venture capital promising the world – and they didn’t really know what they were doing.
But I knew what they had to do. And he knew it.
This Mr. Feickart, though, was a cautious man. He was wary of investing in himself.
“Mr. Williams,” he said, “Do you have a resume.”
I shook my head, no.
“Why not?” he asked.
“I’m a full-time hobbiest,” I answered, truthfully, “I’ve done some construction work, but it didn’t seem appropriate for a job like this.”
“But,” I added, “I know what I’m doing.”
Mr. Feickart nodded.
“The fact is, your model is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I have a hard time thinking a mere hobbiest could put it together.” He was poking for a resume.
I smiled. This was the part I’d practiced a million times.
“When I was a kid,” I said, “I came across an old dump full of Stanley Steamers and all sorts of other steam engine parts. I’ve just been obsessed ever since. I probably know more about steam engines than any man alive.”
I knew what was coming next.
“Mr. Williams,” he said, “I’d love to bring you on board. But as impressive as your work it, you just can’t be a part of our company. I took the liberty of running a background check – and you have a criminal record.”
“What?” I asked, feigning surprise.
“A felony,” he said.
“I never committed a felony,” I answered.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a report.
He opened it, showed it to me, and gestured with his finger. “Right there, he pronounced.”
I tried to laugh convincingly. “There?” I said, “The one marked 1965? Look at me. Do I look old enough to have committed a felony in the 60s?”
It took him a moment, but he laughed too. I didn’t look a day over 30.
“Must be some kind of computer error,” I offered.
“Or you’ve taken somebody’s identity,” he suggested.
“I’ll do a fingerprint, polygraph, whatever. I am Bill Williams.”
He nodded. He’d already run my fingerprints. I was Bill Williams.
“Do you have drafting skills?” he asked.
“Pen and paper.”
He was a little surprised. But not too surprised. I did work with steam.
“Can you give me a few minutes?” he asked. “I’d like to confer with my team.”
“Of course,” I nodded.
So he got up and walked out the door.
A few minutes later, he came back in. “Let’s talk terms.”
I folded my hands on the table – ready to bargain as if I had a fallback position.
But the fact was, I didn’t.
I’d been homeless, on and off, for almost 50 years. I really was Mr. Bill Williams, and I really did have a criminal record.
I’d run down a man in 1965. An accident – I was never a very good driver.
I did five years for reckless endangerment. I was a black man in the South.
The criminal record stuck until people realized it had to be an error. I never stopped looking like a 30 year-old man. You can’t outrun the law, but – it seems – you can outlive it.
And, I knew more about that Stanley Steamer than any man ever had. I’d been the one to engineer it in the first place.
My name was Bill Williams, and I’d been born, in 1853, to slavery.
My mother was a sickly thing – and poorly cared for as a result. But she prayed for a baby that could live and, rumor has it, a voodoo priestess more than obliged.
She died in childbirth, but I lived.
Nobody expected much of me – the son of a dead, sickly, slave woman. But I was smart – and by the time I was six-months old, every slave hand in that plantation knew it.
I was smarter than any baby they’d ever seen – white or black.
But I was too little to know to hide it.
So they got me out of there. I don’t know how, but they did.
So I grew up in the North, a brilliant boy and then a brilliant man. Becoming a steam engineer was the obvious next step. I was a still a black man – my name didn’t go on my work – but I was also the best steam engineer in all of the United States.
And my skills were in hot demand.
In 1906, at the age of 53, I set that record – not knowing a thing about aerodynamics or advanced materials.
And I kept working in cars through the 20s. And I kept living. And then I worked on trains. Until the 50s. And I kept living.
And then, there was nothing to do.
Times had passed me by – but I hadn’t aged a day beyond 30.
The work just stopped.
And so, for 50 years, I’d worked odd jobs: I was an occasional mechanic, I was a street beggar and I even tried busking, but music wasn’t my skill.
Rent was something I couldn’t cover.
But I kept on living.
And I kept on working. Not for pay, of course. But for my own reward. Steam may died in the 1950s, but it lived on in me. It was buried in my brain and a part of my very bones.
I fixed the old mistakes and shortcoming. I dropped weight, improved responsiveness and designed an engine that could best anything called Internal Combustion.
Of course, nobody want
But as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Out of the blue, Steam 21 LLC was born.
I waited for them to fall prey to the hubris of thinking they could outdo the greatest minds of my generation.
And then I stepped in, wearing a stolen suit, and ready to blow my old Stanley Steamer out of the water.
And it’d worked.
You see, I may be an old dog, and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
But when it comes to those old tricks, well, I know them better than anybody does.
Jonas and I?
We settled on 20%.