Going to California

True Names — 2

In my teenage years, the only thing more precious than a computer and a dedicated phone line was the amount of information you could afford to make available at any one time on a computer with a dedicated phone line. Even running some highly customized, super-trim code, the contents of a floppy disk could only hold so many conversations and isolated buckets of people’s emails and text files of questionable legality.

There was no way to send email from one system to another — that was madness at the time, though a couple of small systems eventually networked themselves together enough to offer some sharing, before the Internet as we now know it took off — so once your email was dropped by a system to make room for other things, it was dropped forever. You didn’t keep a copy of all your emails on your computer. You hardly had enough space for the things you absolutely needed in order for your computer to be useful to you in the first place, so you left all your email on the server, always. As a system operator, I felt worst when I had to delete someone’s email, even if it had been read. But I was building something, and I had to have priorities.

It was hard for me to say exactly what it was that I made. It was a game, definitely. But it was a peculiar kind of thing.

I called my mom on the phone tonight.

“I’ve really enjoyed reading all your posts,” she told me.

“Thanks so much for reading,” I said.

“I remember,” she said, “I don’t know if it’s true, but what I remember is that three times one day, while I was ironing, three people came by, and they had $20 for Patrick.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, that happened.” That kind of thing happened more than once. “You know where the story is going.”

My mom and dad were normal parents, around as often as they were supposed to be, so I couldn’t always control whether or not they were home when some adult with whom I was at least passing friends would drop by with a donation toward the keeping the board up. Once I figured out the most straightforward and awesome way to get to where I wanted to go, I flat-out asked for money. Hey, man, if you like it around here, and you can spare anything, I’d totally appreciate it. And what do you know, I got money.

One time, it was red-haired woman, maybe in her early-30s, and she had two kids who were only a few years younger than I was. She gave me money and blinked back her surprise that I was who I said I was, alternating between gushing and being restrained about how much she liked the system. Her boys stood partly behind her, looking at me with a confusing sort of mistrust. God knows what she’d told them she thought I would be like.

And I’ll admit, it looked bad to a parent. Imagine this: You have a son named Derek. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by naming myself at this point. And every once in a while, sometimes a couple of people relatively close together — after normal work hours but before dinner time — would ring the doorbell or knock. The houses in our neighborhood were not especially close together, this being Texas and space being as widely available as it is, so this is not a random caller, but neither is it an expected knock. You answer the door, and a woman only a few years younger than you presses $20 into your hand, smiles, and says, “Tell Patrick it’s great stuff.” To a parent, it sounds pretty bad. I think the only thing that saved me was my complete obliviousness to how bad it sounded.

Like I said before, the Apple IIe had a bunch of card slots, and there was a good number of small companies who made a good living producing boards with different specialized components on them. One of them, Applied Engineering, was in the area, so their catalogs were floating around. One of the sysops for one of the other underground boards had made friends with a guy who worked there, and could get a good discount on their hardware. At half-off the retail price, I bought an expansion card that would let you add memory to it — not storage, like on a spinning disk, but all-electronic and highly volatile memory. The processor couldn’t address this memory directly, though. It had to go through the card slot to get to it, so it wasn’t quite as fast as the memory that came built in with the computer. But you could play a mean if effective trick on the computer by telling it to treat the card like a disk drive. The only snag was that, of course, the card didn’t come with any memory on it. You had to buy it, and it was expensive.

But it was an awesome plan because unlike with disk drives, you didn’t have to take up another card slot every time you wanted to add the equivalent of two more disks-worth of access. The memory expansion card could host the equivalent of 15 floppy disks, on the one card, with no moving parts. It wasn’t as expensive as a hard drive, which started at $700 for cheap crap and which was still far enough out of my league as to be an alien artifact kept in a private hanger by the Air Force somewhere. I had never even seen one with my own eyes, and I had come across a lot of computer equipment by that point in my life. The RAM disk was the way to go.

I kept mowing yards. I could add memory to my system’s expansion card by buying four chips at time and carefully plugging their tiny little delicate metal legs into the small sea of empty sockets on this massive expansion board. The chips came in plastic rails; uncap one end and chips would slide out. I could only ever afford four chips at a time — and it would cost me three weeks of lawn mowing. So for a while, every three or four weeks, I’d ask my mom to drop me off at the comic book store along the edge of the university, and after checking out what was new I would cross the street to buy another rail of chips from a small, bulk electronics parts vendor.

They used to look at me funny when I came into their office. I don’t think they got a lot of walk-in traffic. I used to think, “Come on — don’t look at me. You’re the nerds here.” But I think it was my age, and how excited I was about picking up my fourth rail of RAM that summer. Someone finally asked me what I was doing, 128 Kilobytes at a time, and knowing that I had never given them my name — though they knew me at the comic book story across the street; oh, shit — I began to tell them what I was doing and was quickly waved off as being insane. That kind of reaction was why I never talked about it, or about many things, really, so I shut up and I split because all I cared about was putting that new memory in the card and seeing what else I could do with it, and I couldn’t care less about a bunch of middle-aged dudes with bad, greasy hair who wore brown ties with blue short-sleeved shirts. You’re using an actual pocket-protector, for God’s sake. Why the hell was it so humiliating to be completely and utterly rejected by those people? Why did I not allow myself to feel validated when, on my next visit, one of them very quietly asked for the board’s number, and then thanked me with a quiet sincerity the next time I came in?

But I still haven’t told you what it was.



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