Going to California

From the beginning — 2

Previously, on “Going to California”

I’d worked with Douglas Barnes at Steve Jackson Games, where we had just gotten a bunch of money after suing the Secret Service for raiding us at gunpoint without a warrant — taking computers and printers and nearly putting the company out of business, which it turns out you’re not supposed to do. How that came to happen and how the whole mess turned out is a great story, covered well both by Bruce Sterling in his book The Hacker Crackdown and by Steve Jackson himself on his company’s web page: http://www.sjgames.com/SS/.

The short version of the story: A bunch of well-heeled, liberty-minded geeks got together to pay our legal bills. This organization was and still is called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We didn’t win a ton of money — I like describing what we ended up with as the Secret Service’s annual sunglasses budget — but we did win, and it was enough money that Doug and Steve and some other guys thought to put it to good use by starting an Internet Service Provider. This was in 1993, the dawn of the Internet era, when AOL charged per-minute rates for a shitty, networked-but-not-actually-the-Internet experience. So it felt like we were really helping people. Also, we gave ourselves free Internet access, which was awesome.

There was a blurry line between who was working at the game company and who was working for the ISP. Or rather, it was a blurry boundary for me because I spent nearly all of my time at work doing whatever I could to push both of them forward. I was paid by the game company, but I’d stay up all night working on something for the ISP. It was a hell of a lot of fun for a guy in the most immature stretch of his early 20s, and it’s some of the most stressed out that I’ve ever been in my life, but I did love it.

Doug led the technical charge on getting the ISP off the ground, mostly because at a rather tremendous level of detail he understood exactly what he was doing. Doug made it fun to spend more time at work because he was always very excited about some new thing, and his excitement was infectious.

It was no surprise then when Doug was the first of us to move to California, mining gold in Silicon Valley. The ISP’s first employee was Jim McCoy, who shortly after Doug was the second one of us to move out that way, and before long the core group of people who shared that strange experience in that strange incubator had exploded out into the world in all different directions. But a good number of us ended up in California, eventually.

About seven years later, Jim McCoy and my sister would meet and fall in love and marry, but before that, by the summer of 1999, I was still living in Austin working for a start-up in Austin which had just been bought out. I’d declined to stay on with the new owners. The six months of watching the company get sold had been rough, though not for the reason you might think. I’d had so little work to do that I was afraid that I had let myself get lazy. I thought maybe I could move to France for six months. After all, I knew how to live cheaply in France, back then, which was convenient as I had little money. I figured I’d do contract work of some kind. At least it would keep me on my toes, as opposed to the half-year I’d just spent on my ass.

I never found it hard finding work. I found it hard to find something I loved doing, and I had my bar set pretty high. Also, like I said, I was still pretty immature, even for my age and my gender.

A few weeks after leaving my job, my car died—a broken timing belt executing a perfect murder-suicide against a good number of other breakable things in and around the engine. I put it in the shop. Then my little shack’s air-conditioner died, which in the Texas summertime kept my computer dead during the day. At night, when the sun’s last rays had disappeared, it would return to life before being crushed again by the heat of the following day. I still felt unsettled, even once the AC got fixed.

For the first time in maybe six months I got an email from Doug. I forget why he was checking in, though when I mentioned to him that I was considering moving to Paris he recommended I see Silicon Valley before I left. He was gracious enough to offer to host me. He had a spare room, after all. So why not?

Doug was the perfect tour guide. I got to catch up with Jim, too, who was doing quite well for himself at Yahoo!, and the weekend as a whole struck a very long chord in my geek hind-brain, like the last lingering tones on a Beatles album. It wasn’t the Silicon Valley of my dreams, though it did undeniably feel like a dream of some kind — so strong a dream that it seemed perfectly reasonable and not at all out of the ordinary when I heard that the company where Doug was working wanted to interview me the next afternoon. An opening had come up that morning, and he had put in a good enough word for me that they were intrigued.

It was an international private detective agency. Their information security group, a Silicon Valley acquisition, had some interesting ideas, as people do, and were hiring.

The only way to get through a dream, of course, is to accept its logic, however crazy, and move forward.

The interview consisted of talking to different people one at a time over four hours on a variety of subjects. I asked the final interviewer what it was like working there, a day in the life. I had a hard time getting any sort of a read off the other people so I dug into this one, in case it was my last chance to find out. He looked like he wasn’t sure how to answer, or even if he was supposed to answer, and then he said this.

“In my last job for one of our clients, we had been hired by a company’s board of directors. I had to pose as a Y2K consultant—” This was late 1999. “—so I could get a meeting with the company’s CEO. Big company. I had to talk convincingly with him about their Y2K coverage just in order to be sitting close to him, the CEO, when the Federal marshals burst in to arrest him for corruption. My goal was to prevent him from destroying any evidence there might be on his computer while the marshals crossed the long room to where we sat, and then I was to assist them in preserving as much of the machine’s state as possible to be used as evidence against the man.”

He sat back, letting me digest that.

A few minutes after I walked out of his office, they handed me an employment contract and a check for what to me today is still a lot of money. They urged me to stay there, to blow off the flight home, and to begin work the next day — they had a lot going on, and they wanted me to start right then. They could send people to my tin-roofed shack in Austin to pack it up for me, if that was what I was worried about. My return flight was scheduled to take off in less than three hours.

I told them I was sorry, but I had to take the plane. I remember the words coming out, though I could not tell you the thought process that led to me saying them.

We totally understand, they said. We know this is coming out of nowhere. But tell you what: this offer’s good for 24 hours. Go home. Sleep. And tomorrow, you think about it. If you want the job, all you have to do is deposit the check. Then — do you have a car? Why not just get in your car and drive? It’s not a bad drive. Put on some music.

Next thing I knew, I was on the plane, in mid-flight. I couldn’t remember anything between leaving the office and opening my eyes on the plane. Against the dull roar of the engines, I thought about what would make good driving music for a very long trip. I tried on Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” for the appropriately dramatic moment, and noted with interest how it made me shudder, and cry.

Oh my God, I thought, I’m going to have to get really mature, really fast.

As early as 7:30 the next morning, I began calling people. Several of my oldest friends said they knew what was going on just by the look of me. I was leaving.

My car had been fixed while I’d been gone. After making a wide, 7-hour loop around the city, seeing or at least calling everyone I still cared the most about, stopping at least briefly at every favorite haunt and every memory-filled bridge, driving every route through Austin that for whatever reason had come somehow to mean something to me, I swung by my bank’s drive-through. A moments before 5 PM, I put the check in a teller’s pneumatic tube and in one whoosh I was gone.



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