Timothy Leary was only one of the personalities I brushed up against as we launched Illuminati Online. He was the most famous, for sure, even if he wasn’t the most interesting or the most long-lasting in my life.
First, no one was interested in spending tens of thousands of dollars to set up our own business simply because we figured we had to be able to do it better than a bunch of yahoos across town, only to find out that we were yahoos, too. At a local tech conference — about the ramifications of useful encryption being widely available; I designed the t-shirts — Doug had met a clever security-minded unix geek named Jim McCoy, who became Illuminati Online’s employee number one. Jim first shocked me as being only the third person, after Steve and Doug, who worked longer hours at the office than I did. He was a fixture around the office by the time we launched the ISP: trench-coated, hunched slightly in thought, hairline receding into a long, thin, pale pony tail.
Jim and Doug became fast friends, and the things they plotted to do over 2 AM sessions at Austin’s only decent all-night deli will come back into our story later on. Most importantly, one or the other or the combination of the two did turn out not to be yahoos. The service stayed up, and we moved Metaverse over to its own server — which was bad-ass at the time, but which would be mortally embarrassed by the power and the storage of the phone I had in my pocket six years ago. Looking back, though, I’m still amazed by what they were able to throw together from mail-order parts and a few heavy weeks of manual labor.
To celebrate, Mentor threw a party at his house, a block up the hill from the office. More than half of the people I’d met in the Metaverse actually lived in Austin, so it was likely to be a good crowd. I didn’t expect to see too many people whom I hadn’t already met in person, though there were a few. Like my high-school pirate meet-ups, sometimes it surprised me to realize that I’d come to know some of these people so well that I could have sworn we had already met, only to be wholly surprised by what they looked like in the real world. Not that they were especially pretty or ugly — just normal people, mostly, and normal people all look different from each other in their own unique ways.
Patch was a nineteen-year-old boy who, when grinning, looked like a twelve-year-old boy, if that. He grinned a lot, and he knew more about Unix systems than anyone else I’d met under 21. He’d dropped out of college after his first year and was looking for something to do. Weeks later, he would become employee number two, but when we first met he was sitting on a tall stool in Mentor’s living room, a girl only slightly younger than him perched on his lap, who introduced herself as Felicity, one of the only people in the Metaverse who I genuinely believed was truly female. Even though I had a girlfriend with whom I was very happy, I was as glad to discover that she was a girl as I was disappointed to find her both attached to Patch and quite young, six years younger than I was. She was starting her freshman year at the university, in computer science.
“Can you believe she and I only just met in person for the first time?” Patch asked me, when Felicity’s attention drifted for a moment to a question from someone off to one side. A decent number of people had shown up, enough that you had to speak up to be heard by those sitting next to you.
“You two really only just met?” I asked. He nodded, grinning again. She glanced back over toward me for a moment, stopping herself before she got all the way, instead turning her attention to a far corner of the ceiling.
“It’s great,” he said, squeezing her hand. She smiled, looking down and squeezing back.
“And she’s really a girl,” Patch added. And Felicity undoubtably was a girl, unreasonably thin and unfeasibly intelligent, enormous anime eyes like spotlights in reverse, drawing everything in.
“Not like Bambi,” she added.
I had seen this person called Bambi. She ran around acting like a young, female deer, like the Disney cartoon character. Hardly ever said a word, actually, just flitted about and munched grass. I’m not kidding.
Before I could turn on my “Be Cool” filter, I asked Felicity, “Bambi’s not a girl?” In the Metaverse, you could set the gender of your character, which would automatically make it then use the corresponding pronoun when referring to your character, and in the Metaverse, Bambi was “she.”
Felicity frowned. “Nope. Guy. Nerdy guy, really weird — I’d mention that I was thinking about getting into something, like databases, and a few days later I’d get a package at my door with a five-hundred-dollar database program inside. Lots of documentation.”
“You’re kidding me!” I said.
“Ah, no.” She wrinkled her face. “I keep telling him not to, but it keeps happening.”
“A five-hundred-dollar database package?” In seconds, I’d gone from being lightly jealous of Patch to being a little jealous of her. “Guys really just send you high-end software because they get a crush on you?”
“Yeah,” she said with a laugh. “But Bambi’s really been the only one with the software, so far. He’s a tiny little guy — hates being social, so I didn’t expect him to turn up here — but he’s some high-end programmer or something, so he can afford to do that kind of stuff without thinking about it.” Then suddenly I found myself more than a little envious of a small, nerdy, reclusive man who had the power to make high-end software show up at the drop of a hat.
As I was reeling, Patch asked Felicity what she was doing that weekend. They’d go on to have a brief affair before it came out that, yes, even though he was only nineteen years old he was both already married and already wishing he weren’t. This came up after his first month at work with us, when he had to go back to the college town in the middle of nowhere from whence he’d come and move his wife out to Austin. And the funny thing was that he never talked crap about her, to his credit, not one time. However, when talk of her came up, he’d lose about an inch in height, his shoulders bowing down and towards each other, as though an enormous, fleshy palm were pressing down from above and behind him. The arrival of Patch’s wife distracted Felicity from her affair with him, at least for a while.
Still, it was Felicity who would find herself in my apartment when Timothy Leary came into the picture.
Timothy Leary was a psychedelic subculture guru in the 1960s, among other things. After being jailed several times in the 1970s, he’d lost some of his revolutionary edge, though he was still more than capable of being provocative when it felt good. I’d run into him in January of 1993, in San Francisco, at a high-tech gathering, part robotics demonstration and part self-congratulatory futurist high-five-ing. (After writing this I discovered that my future wife, whom I would not meet for ten years, was at the same show.)
Leary seemed happy to have found a connection to the growing computer subculture, describing our growing sense of life in a networked world as being the closest thing to the hallucinatory drug experiences he had promoted thirty years earlier. For example, while he was giddy to tell the assembled forty or so of us his stories about palling around with William Gibson, author of *Neuromancer*, they always ended with him coming out on top.
“So it’s the middle of the night, and we don’t know anyone else in Prague — and we’d been, you know, drinking.” He winked at the audience to chuckles all around. “And there’s this car coming by, and it’s cold, and we need a lift. So Bill, he says, ‘I got this,’ and he steps out in front of the car and he waves his gangly arms in the air — he’s a tall man, you know — and he says, ‘Stop! I’m William Gibson!’ And the driver nearly runs him down, speeding off into the night.” We laugh uncomfortably. Where was this going? “So the next car that comes by, I hold my arms up and I say, ‘Stop! I’m Timothy Leary!'” He smiled. “And they stopped.”
He was a colorful character. Besides strongly promoting the idea that people should quit their jobs and take a lot of drugs — which, let’s be serious, people never seem to have failed to have come up with that idea on their own — he’d escaped prison, later being dragged back to spend several long periods in solitary confinement — between six months and two-and-a-half years, depending on whom you believe. It was longer than I’d want to spend by myself, in any case.
“Through it all,” he told the people gathered around him, “through everything that I’d done in my life up to that time, I’d always held to two things: I had to either be having fun, or learning something.”
The crowd murmured their appreciation.
“As the doors opened,” he said, “and they began walking me down the hallway to the cell where I would spend years of my life in solitary confinement, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’d better be learning something.'”
Though a lot of what he said was contrived and self-serving, that one was a powerful a life lesson. I wish it would’ve prepared me more for what was going to happen when he came to Austin, and in the weeks and months after.
The lady organizing the spoken-word event that Leary would be headlining was my roommate’s girlfriend, and coincidentally lived in the apartment directly below us. Days before his arrival, she changed the plan so that he would no longer be staying with me. Instead, the people in the apartment beside us could actually clear out for a few days so Leary and his wife or girlfriend or whatever she was could have their own clean space. We lived in a nice set of apartments in downtown Austin, very modern, and the more-empty pad would better serve as a reception area for media and other visitors. I was promised that I’d be one of the five or six core group of people who’d be in and around more often than not, and I had come home early from work to meet him.
This was back in the days when I used to have the television on all the time, as background noise if for no other reason. That day, though, I wasn’t alone. Felicity and I had talked about getting together a couple of times, so she had come by that afternoon to kill some time while we waited for Timothy Leary’s arrival. I was poking at something on the computer in the loft while she sprawled out on the sectional couch, smoking in front of the television.
“Uh, Derek,” she called up. “Is this your guy?” Even though I’d heard the TV announcer at the same time that she had, I hadn’t responded. I imagined a word-balloon stretching out of my mouth, reading, “Does not compute.” I scrambled down the black, spiral staircase, my mouth open, staring at the screen.
My girlfriend Cookie walked in. She and Felicity sized each other up, but before either of them could open their mouths, I said, “Timothy Leary was just arrested at the Austin airport. They’re holding him at the police station—” I pointed out the door, behind my girlfriend. “—about two blocks away.”
Cookie both relaxed and looked irritated at the same time. I thought she was irritated because she’d gotten dressed up for a party that now almost certainly wasn’t going to happen, and not because she’d found a beautiful, meek young girl in a dark purple crushed velvet dress lounging about in my apartment.
“Why?” Cookie asked.
“We don’t—” Felicity started. Cookie began to look at her, but then turned her gaze so strongly toward me that Felicity shut up.
“We don’t know,” I said, still completely oblivious to so many things. My roommate’s girlfriend came in.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “Did you hear?”
I pointed at the television. “A woman in Atlanta just told me through a nation-wide broadcast what happened a couple of blocks from here about an hour ago.”
Cookie wrinkled up her nose. “Okay,” she said. “That is weird.”
“It’s a disaster,” said my roommate’s girlfriend. “They arrested him!”
“What for?” I asked.
“Smoking,” she said.
“What?! He brought drugs on the flight?”
“No,” my roommate’s girlfriend said. “Just tobacco. Cigarettes.”
“Um,” I said, raising my hand. “How is that illegal?”
She winced. “It was a no-smoking area.”
“Why didn’t he just go outside?” Felicity asked.
Cookie stared at me, her lips pursed.
Felicity zipped up her backpack. “I should go,” she said.
When the cops let Leary go, he went somewhere else other than our salmon-colored, too-modern downtown apartments. We wouldn’t have an opportunity to ask what had actually happened until the next day, at the show — and boy, would we find out more than we would ever want to have known about how it had all gone down.