This is as much as I ever planned out of that last stretch of writing.
This is as much as I ever planned out of that last stretch of writing.
This is a photo taken of me on the set of The Sunshine Factory, when I was twelve years old.
Here’s how all of this gets written: I spend between an hour and ninety minutes hammering out some text, and maybe I proofread it, then I post it. Maybe I look at it again the next day and make a few changes — maybe I make a lot of changes — but maybe I don’t.
I’m confident that there are typos.
But I’m looking back at how much I’ve written so far. Rough word counts are as follows.
1. From the Beginning: 4,297
2. The Sunshine Factory: 5,179
3. True Names: 7,233
4. “Shall We Play A Game?”: 6,679
5. Confusion: 7,284
6. Dancing: 4,335
7. The Hacker Crackdown: 8,660
8. “Shall We Make A Game?”: 17,270
9. Making Magic: 33,837
Total: 94,774 words
That’s a lot of words. I bet I could cut a third or more out of the Hacker Crackdown without trying hard. I bet I could cut a thousand words out of True Names. But all of stories 1 through 6 combined are about the same size as “Making Magic”, which I don’t feel like I could cut too much. I’m shocked to look back and find it’s that long. I’m even more surprised to realize that I wrote all that in just under four weeks. Maybe I could cut a lot out of “‘Shall We Make A Game?'” but even still, the story’s not over yet and we’re already in the neighborhood of 100,000 words.
A small novel can be around 45,000 words. So this is already a medium-sized novel.
What I find most interesting is how something like a hundred people are all reading and enjoying this. I think there’s more, actually — somewhere just over 600 people visit at least occasionally — but some people’s visits are very far apart. Something like a hundred people get caught up every two to four days.
I’m grateful that anyone is reading it, much less so many people from all over the globe. Most people are from America, though maybe a third are in the UK, followed by Australia, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, France, Germany, Argentina, Spain, Peru, Hong Kong, Japan, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, over the last 30 days. That’s cool.
I’m going to see how long I can keep up with daily posting. I think we’re about two-thirds of the way to the end of this. I may just keep writing until I get there. I’ll try not to stretch it out.
Thanks for reading while I’m writing.
Of course, the road to selling twenty-three million cards wasn’t completely straight. For example, the first production batch of cards from the printer were not what we wanted. Evidently, the printer thought we were just kidding when we’d talked about having a mathematical formula, even a simple one, for controlling the distribution of the common, uncommon, and rare cards. And then once the retail stores heard that we were actually going to be able to deliver on what they ordered, they not only weren’t worried about having ordered too much of the game, they simply raised their orders further. We weren’t able to adjust the print run at that point, though we felt good about penciling in a reprint sooner than later.
The area of damp dog smell radiating out of the carpet from the fireplace was still growing. The night before Thanksgiving, some of my archaeologist housemates decided to take serious measures against the dog spirit who it seemed was haunting our home. I came in from a night out with friends around one in the morning to find that I could not see anything at all in front of me. Usually, I could see down the short front hall and through the long living room out through the glass door to the backyard starlight beyond.
Flipping on the hall light showed me why: visibility was only about 3 feet or so, after which a solid volume of smoke filled the house floor to ceiling. I called hesitantly to my housemates, but got no response. After confirming that no one was in the living room I made my way to the fireplace, where embers still glowed. Coughing, I opened the flue and cracked the back door, then I retreated to my room. One open window and a damp towel along the door’s bottom edge later and I felt safe going to sleep that cold November night.
To be fair, though, they’d exercised whatever had been haunting us. It’d be a month before people stopped asking me why I smelled like a campfire, though we never felt dampness on the carpet or smelled wet dog in the living room again.
The weeks leading up to the game’s release were some of the sweetest in years, and one of the few bright spots through my year of tedious depression. People were talking about a new movie that had just come out called Pulp Fiction, and after all the time we’d spent together over the past three months it felt great to get out with Steve to do something fun — I thought Doug Barnes had come with us as well, though he doesn’t remember it that way now; someone did, certainly. It felt even more right to be seeing for the first time a movie that seemed destined to be a classic.
“It’s a great game,” I said in the parking lot on the way out from the film.
“Well, I hope so,” Steve said. “I think it will sell.”
“It will,” I said.
Back at the office, Jim McCoy, lead admin for Illuminati Online, was opening one of the first sets of finished, packaged, store-ready cards and sorting them out. I thought seeing that many cards so soon would be nausea-inducing. I was wrong. For whatever reason, it was comforting. To see Jim so delighted by the cards was a real gift for me, too. I told him about Pulp Fiction, strongly recommending he see it.
He nodded quietly, adding nothing further. That was when it hit me: I always knew Jim was a cool guy, though I hadn’t realized how shy he was. I hoped he’d open up some day.
I told him how the Newton coupled with the software he’d given me had saved the day for us in Michigan, at the press check, marveling at how much technology had to be bent to make up for being short a single quarter. We had a good laugh. I liked Jim.
We played our first in-house game with real, finished cards — six of us battling it out for world domination. I won.
Soon, the fan mail began pouring in — mostly electronic, at first, though this was in the day when physical fan mail still arrived every day, with questions or ideas or strange randomness. Overall, I think the game had a mixed reception. It took much longer to play than Magic, for example, and it was a specific kind of dorky that was different from Dungeons & Dragons dorky or Star Trek dorky. It had its serious fans, though, and in those first few weeks, most people were pretty excited about it. There’d only been four collectible card games of note, by that point, not counting two tiny disasters from two tiny companies.
We were excited, certainly. The best part, of course, was finally having something worth talking about with people who didn’t give a crap about games. At a small concert in downtown Austin, I ran into one of Cookie’s old roommates and her boyfriend, the young designer who’d been running down my Internet predictions.
“It hasn’t even been a week,” I said, “and we’ve nearly sold through twenty-three million cards.” They stared, mouths opened. “I think it’s pretty cool,” I filled in. They wished me a merry Christmas, turned, and walked away. I never saw them again. That’s fine.
The following week, I met up with Cookie. She called because she was in town for Christmas to see her parents. I picked her up in town and we drove over to just north of the university campus. That’s where in Austin you always used to find the most spectacular holiday light displays, strands of brilliance stretching from pole to pole along and across the street and back. Maybe it’s still that way today.
Standing on a corner, looking up at the pin points of color, I hugged her from behind as she reached up to squeeze my forearms gently.
“Some part of you will be inside of me for eternity,” I said, not sure it was a good thing even though it was true. We did not kiss. That would be more than six months out, still.
As uneven as some of our moments had been during production, Steve was gracious and generous once the money began rolling in. He gave me a bonus that was almost half my annual salary at that point, as well as a 20% raise. This was still not a lot of money, even in Austin terms, but I was finally making more than a starting teacher’s salary, so it began to feel more real. I began to wonder if I might actually have taken a much larger step towards adulthood than I’d thought.
I was having fun, and I was learning something. What’s not to love?
My mom called. “You won, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“The nerds. The nerds won.”
“You did. You always said that computers were the future, and that tying them together was important, and in the past year it’s finally happened.”
“Are you saying you think it’s cool to be a nerd?”
“No,” she said. “I think the nerds aren’t nerds anymore. I don’t know; they just are. But they’re in charge now. You’re in charge now.”
“It doesn’t feel like it,” I said, quickly adding, “but thanks. Thank you.”
Our house was full for New Year’s Eve. Jeff and Andy and their larger circle were there, plus Suzanne and some of her other friends; Patch and Felicity showed up, though Doug was busy — and of course there were the archeologists and all their friends. Even Mentor came through, for a time. Rick couldn’t make it. He was back in Houston, having girlfriend trouble. Something would have to change there soon.
As the night breezed on, I found myself sitting in one of those big round rattan papasan chairs, half curled up and watching everyone moving in and around the party, basking in the magic of the evening. Down on the floor by the chair, Felicity asked something of Patch, pointing up at me. He grinned and shrugged, and like a careful cat she crawled up to nestle with me in that eternal moment. She held my hand, pressing it against her thin waist.
“I can see it,” I told her. I tilted my head toward Patch, who sat watching us from the thick shag carpet. “I see it.”
“See what?” he asked, still grinning.
“All the connections,” I said, my gaze drifting. “I can see the three of us on the day we met. I can see every time Felicity served me eggs over-easy at Red River Cafe. Doug was so important to all of this, and I can see the raw deal he got, in the end — I wonder what’s going to happen to him? It’ll be so marvelous to see.”
I went on. “I can see all the ways that I know all the people here, and how we’ve touched each other’s lives — the important ways, the trivial ways. All the connections. It makes a pattern.”
“Cool,” he said.
“Someday,” I told them both, “I’m going to write it all down.”
“If anyone can,” Felicity said, “it’s you.”
“Well,” I began to say —
— then a short fuse ignited in my brain, and for a moment, only for a moment, I thought I heard my mother saying something, and I remembered the thing I hadn’t even known I’d forgotten, never known I had lost.
It came to me, only for a second: my true name. I reached to grasp it with both hands and like that, it was gone. Worse, I couldn’t even remember what it had been, what it had meant to me, or the mysterious web of connections it had so briefly unlocked.
“Are you alright?” Felicity asked.
“I think so,” I said, though I did not think so.
Someday, I told myself, I should at least try to write it down. But being realistic, until I finished the book that Steve had pulled — and he was right to pull it, I could see it by then; the most infuriating thing about Steve was that he was right, he especially was usually right about things being wrong — I couldn’t even begin to think about writing anything else.
One year to the day, I would again remember my true name. But it would be a long year.
Here’s the story.
It was a simple idea, as these things go. After having spent years wondering what the Internet would first look like — only to be disappointed to discover that no, it wasn’t going to be the virtual-reality interface promised by science fiction but a series of crappy-looking flat pages of text no more sophisticated than a daily newspaper — I was the right person at the right time to ask why it couldn’t be just a little bit more.
Since quarterly newsletters and bi-monthly magazines were too infrequent, especially in promoting a project we’d started only ten weeks earlier, the answer was something online. Because our Web site was one of the first couple of hundred destinations on the Internet, if not one of the first hundred, and a good chunk of people who were online at that time were, well, geeks, our little game company got a fair bit of traffic. So you’d want it to be a Web page.
But it would be great if it wasn’t any old Web page, not least because I didn’t like Web pages at the time. For example, here’s what The Telegraph looked like in 1994’s November.
Not good. What about yesterday’s stories? What about related stories? Because traditional media was crapping themselves about how they were going to make money online, they had no plan to make older content available. A number of media outlets seemed to presume they’d end up adopting a business model like Lexis-Nexus, which had been successfully selling subscriptions to case-law records and news archives for many years by that point. Still, I don’t remember anyone being interested in organizing what little content they were putting online towards the end of 1994.
What if you didn’t care whether or not anyone was paying for your content? We sold issues of Pyramid Magazine, because it cost a lot to print. We gave away our quarterly newsletter in stacks because it was a compact bit of self-promotion. But what if you did care about letting people look back, to see the full scope of content you’d posted in the past, and you wanted to make it as easy as possible?
Begin with a Web page, basic HTML, with a header across the top naming your publication and a short column of text saying whatever you wanted to say. Then every day, you could add another column on top of yesterday’s story, growing the page out in reverse-chronological order. Add something like a little calendar in the upper-right corner of the page, which would show readers which days had seen updates, and let them jump to specific days, and you’re golden.
You could put all sorts of things in these columns. You can give people your email address, you could link to other pages on your site — you could link to other sites.
It could be a better promotional tool than a magazine or a newspaper. It didn’t need to be a daily editorial, it could reach out to people in a very personal way. I was afraid that it would become more personal journal than advertising copy, though I figured there were worse things in the world.
I didn’t have a name for it, though 19 years later most people would call it a weblog, blog for short.
I had a serious problem, though. I called it postpartum depression over having gotten the card game out the door, but it turned out to be normal depression, in a serious way. While I expect I probably looked fine, it would control my life for almost exactly a year.
We didn’t have a year to kick this thing off, though. The printer was mowing through the card stock, and the retailers were hungry for the game, so we had four weeks to get our fans fired up enough to send them into the stores.
Every day, Steve asked me, “How’s it going with that news thing?” I don’t know what I said. I should have said, “Listen, I’m pretty depressed and I can’t even see how to start making something that isn’t crap.” Because while Steve was not always a mentoring type, he was a problem solver, and one of his special geniuses was improving things that sucked.
Instead, I did almost nothing for ten days after Andy and I got back from the press check. That’s not totally true: I took the time to assess what it would take to get my book project back on track. With the confidence and the credibility I’d earned from my work on the card game, I still thought it would be possible to get it out in two months.
It wouldn’t come out for two years, though I’ll get to that.
My work on the HTML page quickly got hung up on how to make the little calendar, and though I spent nearly all my free time brooding about it I made no progress. After waiting nearly two weeks for me to get off my ass and do something — anything — Steve caught me in the hall upstairs one Thursday morning.
“I went ahead and started a page for the newsletter idea you were talking about,” he said. “I don’t know what to call it, but we can figure it out.”
I was mad, though I knew I could only be mad at myself. I’d wanted to make something great, while Steve saw how to make something good enough.
“I gave you permission to update the file,” he said with a shrug. “If you want to be the one to update it, go ahead.”
I was too mad and depressed to do anything about it that night. The next day, Steve told me that a fan had recommended calling it The Daily Illuminator, and that’s what it’s called to this day.
Click here to read the first two weeks of the Web’s oldest blog. The first entry was November 16, two days before the page from The Telegraph shown above.
By Sunday, I’d crawled far enough away from my depression and didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure to return to my derailed book project, so I took the time to add my first of many updates to the Illuminator. After a short line reporting that we’d signed off on the most recent issue of Pyramid, I said this:
“The rest of our weekend has been surprisingly calm. After much cold and rain this morning, the clouds parted and we had a lovely autumn afternoon.”
I’ll call it my first blog post, and that’s why to my closest friends and I take credit for co-founding the world’s oldest blog. Though it made me grit my teeth at the time, Steve Jackson deserves credit for being its first blogger, with me being the second.
Was it the first actual blog? I don’t know. In 2008, I heard about a guy who’d posted a reverse-chronological diary of his summer intern a few months before our column started, but I don’t know anyone who heard about it at the time and he didn’t keep any archives. The basic idea had appeared before as a “plan” file, which some older-school Internet people used to make available for public browsing, which was kind of a personal “what I’m planning to do” text file. What we did took the concept to its logical Web-based conclusion. If it wasn’t the first blog, it was the first one we ever saw, and it remains the oldest, longest-running, regularly updated blog, though the credit for that goes to the great number of people who’ve stepped up over the years to keep it updated.
Call it a final bit of magic to show up in my life that year.
We updated it every day, letting fans in on the blow-by-blow of getting Illuminati: New World Order, and soon other projects, wrapped up and available in stores. It was 10 days before we included our first link, though the ability to link to other pages across our site was cooler than any worry about people getting sick of reading text littered with links. It was the Web: people hoped your text would be littered with links, because that felt like a more useful thing to do. Other news sites were repulsed by the idea of putting up columns linking to source material or definitions on other sites, because it was taking readers away from their content and their site. It sounded to us that by doing the right thing for readers, they’d be more inspired to come back to us again.
The Daily Illuminator is still going strong, nearly 20 years later.
Exactly one month after the Illuminator’s first post, on December 16, Illuminati: New World Order hit retail stores. I hit a couple of comic shops on launch day, and it was an eerie feeling to see our neatly packaged decks of cards there by everyone’s cash registers. I was swollen with regret over so many aspects of the design, but seven or so people had put it together from scratch in two months — and that included bringing the team of seven or so people together. So it wasn’t great, but I had to admit it was good enough.
It was an even eerier feeling a few days later, when all the decks were gone. They were gone because they had sold out.
People liked it. In seven days, we sold 23 million cards.
There’d been a young, auburn-haired woman on the plane, right across the aisle and behind us, who’d spent the flight deep in concentration on a book. She was reading quickly, occasionally pausing to underline a word with sharp deliberation.
When the printer’s rep let us stop at our hotel to check in before heading to the facility, we ended up in line for the front desk just behind the girl from the airplane.
“‘Scuse me,” I said.
She turned and let me see her smile.
“You were on the plane with us,” I said.
“Sorry for asking, but I noticed you were doing a lot of underlining while you were reading.”
She nodded again. “Every time I hit a word I didn’t know,” she’d told me, “I marked it. I flew out here for an interview, but when I have some time to myself tonight, I’ll look them all up to be sure I’m getting everything.”
“Wow,” I said.
“What are you here for?”
“Press check,” I said. Then, knowing full well the risk of ridicule, I said, “Have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?”
“I think so,” she said, eyes narrow.
“We’re doing one of the first games like it.”
“What’s it about?”
“Secret conspiracies trying to take over the world.” I wasn’t sure where to go from there. “It’s pretty cool.”
“It sounds cool,” she said. “You’re staying here?”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering why she was asking. Of course I was staying there. That’s why I was in line to check in. All I could think to say back was, “You?”
“Yes,” she said. “They got me a room here on my own, so I’m just hanging out.”
“Oh,” I said. We exchanged names; I don’t remember hers. “I don’t know when we’ll be back from the printer. It may be late, but I hope it won’t be too late. If you’re around in the hotel restaurant later, I’ll look for you there.”
“Okay,” she said, still smiling. Then it was her turn to check in.
As she walked away, keys in hand, she glanced back at me. She had green eyes, and she was still smiling.
Touring the printer’s facilities was a slideshow of impressive views. They couldn’t possibly have afforded enough space any closer to an urban center. There were warehouse floors with two and three rows of gigantic, German-made, multi-color presses, larger and more aggressive-looking than an armored tank scaled to the size of a bus. There were barrels of ink that would intimidate Donkey Kong. There were many palettes of unprinted paper and card stock.
“How many cards are we actually printing?” I asked Andy as we walked from one enormous, bright, airplane hanger-scale warehouse to another.
“You didn’t hear?”
“I heard that the numbers were high, but that with the new game some distributors were changing their orders.” A collectible card game based on Star Trek was hitting stores in something like a week, and it looked great. We were worried about two things: getting the game out before the company ran out of money, which would put most of us out of work, and getting the game out before too many of the oncoming competitors made it onto the market.
There were only so many people who were going to be interested in collectible card games, we figured, and it wouldn’t take too many games to saturate the market.
“They changed their numbers,” Andy said. “They raised them. You really didn’t hear? The sales on the Star Trek game is going so well that the stores raised their orders to the distributors. So we’re printing twenty-three million cards.”
I wanted to stop walking but I figured I had to act like nothing was wrong, even though I knew full well that retailers had been suffering terrible shortages of Magic shipments to the point that they’d started ordering far too many just to get a minimum amount. The Star Trek game wasn’t going to keep us out of the market. It was giving the stores enough cash and confidence to boost their orders for our game. They may be ordering four or five times as many as they can actually sell, presuming that supply will be a problem.
The distributors had the option to send back what they didn’t think they could sell.
“Oh my God,” I said quietly to him. “We don’t have to push it to the stores — it’s getting it out of the stores that’ll be the problem. That means the game has to actually be good.”
“It is good,” Andy said. “It’s going to be fine.”
And the press check itself was fine. Your basic Twentieth-Century color printing was a careful balance between four colors: Cyan, a kind of light electric blue; Magenta, a neon hot pink; plus Yellow and Black. We only had to make a couple of tweaks to the flow of magenta on one of the card-back sheets, and that was it.
But I knew what I was probably passing up as I was asking a guy with a black beard to tweak the flow of hot pink fluid on his massive, German-born press.
A couple of guys at the printer offered to take the time to crudely cut out a partial set of cards for us. It only took another twenty minutes or so.
“The final ones will have reliably straight cuts and rounded corners and everything,” said the guy with the black beard. “Hopefully these’ll do you for now.”
“They’re fine,” I’d said, transfixed by actual cards in my hands. “They really are fine.” And they were. Andy and I would take turns pawing them back in our room.
They looked at least good enough.
We got back to our hotel before midnight, fifteen minutes after the restaurant closed but while room service was still available.
There weren’t a lot of video-watching options in Holland, Michigan, near the end of 1994, but Conan The Barbarian was on, so we watched Arnold Schwarzenegger chew his script as we ate room-service burgers.
Early on, he is asked, “Conan, what is best in life?” And he delivers his famous answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
For some reason, that had both of us laughing like eight-year-olds, howling with relief. It was the deep laugh of people who were for a moment in the same place at the same time, who trusted each other like everyone should have someone to trust, who were free.
When Andy and I were done laughing, I said, “Wonder what happened to that girl.”
“She’s lamenting,” Andy said.
“Hope not,” I said. She didn’t seem like a lamenter. “Hope she did well on her interview.”
“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Derek, man: what the hell was it you did at the airport? That was bad ass.”
“Just a hack, a little trick that in most cities doesn’t even work any more. To tell the phone company that money has been put into a pay phone, it sends up a little signal, and if you can reproduce that signal then you can fake having put money into the phone. That’s all I did. Who knows, maybe by next year it won’t work at all. But it worked today.”
“That is fucking bad ass. I knew that Mentor knew about all of that stuff, but I never actually saw someone do it, like right there, right in front of me.” He frowned a little. “So you used to be a serious computer guy?”
“Yeah, I was a programmer, a while back.”
“And you’re a designer now? Why’d you stop?”
“Oh, I knew I’d never be that good. And I figured that there was something else out there that wasn’t programming but wasn’t sitting in front of a green-screen doing data entry.”
“And what was that?”
I fumbled to explain myself. It’d been years since I’d even thought about it.
“People look at computers and they have no idea what they’re actually capable of doing,” I said. “But the truth is that computers are extremely limited. People get frustrated with computers because they don’t know how limited they actually are. They figure they should be able to do whatever they want to do, and while they know that computers are getting faster and whatever, outside of being able to play Doom or not being able to play games at all, I don’t think most people truly understand what a computer can do. It’s either a really fancy abacus, or it’s magic.”
“I’m with you.”
“But in the space between what a computer normally does and what it will never be able to do, there’s a boundary. And the more you know about that boundary, the better you can press on it. And if you can press on it just enough, you can carve out a little pocket, and that’s where you find magic — the only real magic you’re going find in this world.”
As we turned our attention back to the film, in the back of my head I realized I’d finally actually done it — we had done exactly what I was telling Andy. We’d pushed our tech and ourselves far further than was reasonable. In a little over two months, we had made magic. I also realized I was wrong, and that it was far from the only magic in the world. If I could come out of the other side of where my head had gone and trust someone, anyone, I don’t know what else to call it other than magic.
On the plane the next morning, I couldn’t put down the samples. This is real, I kept telling myself, touching one card after another. From the nothingness of insanity I’d summoned up something really, really real.
I had done a cover story in Pyramid Magazine for the game, but suddenly that didn’t seem like enough promotion. Every quarter, we put out a quarterly newsletter to our retailers called “Where We’re Going,” which ended up being passed along to customers in small numbers, but we’d produced Illuminati: New World Order so quickly that it would hardly be promotion enough.
We needed a way to speak not only to retailers, like the newsletter, but to our customers, like Pyramid — not only for this game, but for everything, as much as possible. It couldn’t be at our invitation — meaning, we weren’t going to send people email every day to promote the game. The fans would have to drive the interaction.
On the plane, on the way home, the heavens parted and the sun shined down and an idea came upon me. I set down the cards and stared off into space, reveling in the joy of being given such a gift.
Back in Austin the next day, as Steve was looking over the sample cards himself, I shared my thought with him.
He listened carefully. “That,” he said, “is an excellent idea.” He pointed downstairs. “Do it.”
“Okay,” I said.
You won’t believe what it was.
Once Andy and I were on the plane, seat belts snapped, I was almost able to relax, though my memory of the ten or so days before were not especially clear.
The final rush to completion had been a frenzy. The enormous sheets of card layouts looked fine, the art was as decent as it could be with what little sanity we’d had remaining — our earliest work was making me cringe, by then — and I’d put finishing touches on a stripped-down design for the various cardboard boxes and other packaging needed to hold the products together.
The last few pieces of art we made were for the Illuminati themselves. Jeff threw several together in a day in Photoshop, while I went the roundabout way to produce a few myself, such as borrowing some high-end 3-D software to render a golden apple.
I have no memory of actually turning the game in, of sending it off to the printer. I remember us standing around downstairs, saying, “Okay, well, what do you think? Is this it?” But we must have. I don’t think I did a lot before getting on the plane.
Unfortunately, after landing outside of remote Holland, Michigan — home to many large printers as well as three of the largest American office furniture companies: Haworth, Herman Miller, and SteelCase (which we were later told was technically in Grand Rapids, less than 30 minutes from Holland) — we hit a fundamental impasse.
Neither of us had any money. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because we had bank cards and credit cards.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Andy said. “There are no ATMs here.”
It’s not as though we needed a lot of money. We only needed a quarter, to call our printer’s office so they could send over someone to meet us.
Imagine, if you can, being one of the few people traveling through a small airport in a relatively remote part of Michigan, when up walks a shaggy, sleep-deprived guy in torn jeans, sporting a bright nose ring and a look in his eyes of unparalleled paranoia. A bristle-headed companion stands by in a worn, black leather jacket, cooly staring you down.
The first guy says, “Motherfucking do you have a quarter?” While you have no way of knowing how hard it is for him to start a sentence with a D — like trying to pick up a house of cards; even using both hands does not help — you can imagine it being hard to be sympathetic.
You can imagine not giving him a quarter.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Andy. “I can’t believe how old this place is.”
Something sparked in my mind. I began digging through my backpack.
“How old would you say this place is?” I asked.
“Green-shag-carpet old. Dark-wood-paneling old.”
I pulled free a device, grinning so hard that it hurt.
“Fucking watch this,” I said, not only because starting to talk with a W-sound was like buying a first-class ticket to Porky-Pig land, but because, well, fucking watch this.
The thing I held up to the pay phone receiver was an Apple Newton, which looked like this:
As far as I knew at the time, it was the most powerful portable computer in the world. Even though I was nearly always broke, when Jim McCoy heard that Apple was releasing a special, small batch of this new, incredible hardware in transparent plastic, he let me know. He and I and another io.com guy each bought one, making the three of us the only people we knew who had Newtons, and so even with the terrible press that the first device had gotten we were the only people we knew who understood how awesome its newest incarnation had become.
Because there wasn’t a lot of software for them at the time, we’d share whatever software we came across. Through the usual secret three-way-handshakes and esoteric quote exchanging, Jim and I came to understand that we shared a specific background. One day, he’d buzzed my office.
“I got a new piece of Newton software,” he said. “It makes Red Box tones — that mean anything to you?”
I blurted, “Can I have a copy?”
That’s why a few months later, in Holland, Michigan — which was so far behind the times that the phone company had probably not updated their infrastructure in well over fifteen years, I was able to hold my Newton up to the phone receiver and tap an image of a quarter, which triggered the device to make a series of high-pitched “budda-dudda-dink” noises.
“What are you doing?” Andy asked, glancing around to check if we were being watched.
“What’s the number?”
He gave me the number. I told the printer rep that we were at the airport. She said she’d send someone right over.
Walking to the airport exit, Andy whispered, “Holy shit, dude. What did you just do?”
“Magic,” I said.