Going to California

Author’s Note

Pressing on into the last round of writing on this story is taking a lot longer than I’d wanted. I spent the better part of three weeks traveling on business, and nearly a week later I’m still fairly jet-lagged. Or maybe 11 weeks of daily writing is the most I can do in one long run without some recharging.

Still, in about five weeks I’ll be taking a long vacation from my normal life. I want to have this story wrapped up by then, and I plan to make the time to do it. It’s a simple matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

I appreciate your patience. Thanks for reading.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 4.5

We didn’t see each other much that weekend. Doug and Jim had a lot of work to do on the business plan for Mojo Nation, and I spent a lot of time simply driving around the peninsula, trying to wrap my head around living in the dream that I’d always imagined to be Silicon Valley. I’d passed most of Sunday with Charlie, one of my old friends from the gaming industry, playing board games with his old group of older guys. They’d been meeting about once a week to try one game or another for more than twenty years; for a while, I was a welcome drop-in addition, and I was extremely grateful, even well after I’d moved into my own home. Charlie’s game room would be an island of sanity in what would be my increasingly unpredictable world, and that first time there was no different.

On my way away from Charlie’s place — in a suburb south of Oakland, just on the other side of the bay — I got a call from Doug to meet up again with Jim for dinner. He had news.

“We broke up,” he told me.

“Oh, wow,” I said, “I’m really sorry.”

“Well,” he said, shrugging. He seemed tired, for sure, but he looked a lot better. His shoulders weren’t slumped. He was almost relaxed.

Jim was eyeing him with quiet distance. I should’ve taken that as a sign.

“I hope I didn’t have anything to do with it,” I said.

“No, no,” Doug said. “I mean, you did — but not in a bad way.” He thought about it. “Having you here showed me how unhappy I’ve been. You reminded me what it was like…to have fun. So, thanks.”

“Wow,” I said. “I’m really sorry to hear that. I mean, I guess I’m glad it’s been fun and everything, but yeah: I’ve been wondering what was up. You’re not the same Doug I remember from Austin. You haven’t seemed very happy.”

“I’m not very happy,” he said with a laugh. “At least, I haven’t been. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Thanks. I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better. Honestly, I had no idea what you were doing with that girlfriend of yours. I thought she was a terrible fit for you.”

“How so?” he asked, so I went off on what I didn’t like about her, because I’m a very stupid person.

The next day, Doug called me at work and asked if I could stop on my way home and pick up some steaks for him. He was grilling for some people — I would need to make my own plans for the evening — but he was too busy with work and the like to hit ths store himself.

When I got to his place with the steaks, Doug was so upset he was flustered.

“These are not—” he started, pointing at the steaks.

“What? I got what you wanted.”

“Yes,” he said, “but don’t you know what the important part of this cut is? It’s this little piece of meat right here.” He pointed. “You always get the ones with the largest part of this cut. That’s the best part, everybody knows it.”

I felt more than a little side-swiped. “Oh,” I said. “Sorry.” He waved it off. “I was going to ask you, though: What’s going to happen with you and your girl?”

Doug looked at me like I wasn’t making any sense, then his eyes snapped into focus. “Oh!” he said. “Yes. We talked about it, and we got back together.”

Oh, shit, I thought. “How do you feel about that?” I asked.

“Good, actually!” He smiled, opening the steaks. “We had a long talk, and it was good. I brought up with her a lot of the points that you’d made about her, and I think it was a productive conversation.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Did you tell her that those thoughts came from me?”

“Of course,” he said. “She’d actually like to talk with you about them as well.”

“I bet,” I said, and excused myself.

“Yeah, well,” Jim said, when I told him what had happened. “Doug doesn’t always break up with people on the first try. I learned a long time ago not to say anything until it’s definitely over, and sometimes even then I don’t ever.”

“I feel like an ass,” I said.

“Don’t,” Jim said. “It’s just what happens.”

The next day, I snuck out before anyone else was awake, made my way into the break room at work with a copy of the local peninsula phone book, and began calling apartments. There were no vacancies. In the city, where things were even hotter, people were paying as much as a thousand dollars a month just to crash on someone’s couch for a month. Having spent the past two years with a $500 monthly budget for living expenses, this seemed out of control. On the other hand, it was Silicon Valley.

Eventually, I found a complex that had a single one-bedroom open. While I was still in Austin, I’d been saving up for a new computer, one of the recently iMac releases. My monthly rent in Mountain View would cost more than an iMac each month. Luckily, if unreasonably, I could afford it. It made my head hurt, but the numbers were clear.

In less than ten days, I’d move into my own place. Not long after, for a while, Doug simply vanished.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 4

When I got in the next morning, Mary threw that special task at me. It was an interactive security training application on a compact disc, and three minutes into it I was wondering if it might not be a trick, a test — it was that awful. Still, I kept plugging away at the training, given that I’d had to borrow a laptop from someone in order to run the thing. Whether or not something is specifically a test, it’s best to be thorough.

“Well?” she asked me after lunch, in her office. “What did you think?” A tall, Italian-esque man I’d never seen before was standing behind her.

“Um…” I said, glancing back and forth between the two of them.

“Spit it out,” she said.

That was my least-favorite thing for people to tell me. “It’s not that good,” I told her, then turned to the gentleman, holding out my hand. “And you are?”

“Ah!” he said. “Dario.”

Mary laughed. “Dario’s come on to help with the business side of things, isn’t that right?”

Dario made a good-natured noise.

“Oh, thank God,” I said. “I thought it might have been your product or something.”

Dario chuckled.

“Because it’s really bad,” I added.

“Bad?” he asked

“Ah, yes. It was bad.”

“There’s a big difference between bad and not good,” Mary said. “How bad?”

“Inconsistent level of detail — sometimes they talk about how lock tumblers work, sometimes very high level about risk management, then back down, then back down to say something about restricting access when people don’t need it. There’s no organization. It’s kind of a grab-bag. Plus, it looks terrible. A freshman graphic-design student could’ve done better. The interaction was slow, the interface clumsy. The writing was really horrible, inconsistent—”

“Tell us what you really thing,” Dario murmured, then he and Mary shared a laugh.

“Okay,” she told me. “Thank you.”

Phil came by my cube later on. “You settle on what kind of machine you want, yet?”

I showed him the Mac laptop I wanted. Two weeks before, I’d never dreamed I’d have one any time in the near future, and there I was having someone order it for me — the low-end model, but an excellent machine nonetheless.

He was leery. “You sure that’s what you want? Everyone else is using Windows, here. We’ve got some nice Sony VAIOs — you seen those? They are pretty slick. At least get a Windows laptop and put Linux on it, yeah?”

“This is what I need,” I said. “I have good reasons.”

He sighed. “Look,” he said, “if you need it, you need it, but it’s just a toy — it’s practically a brick.”

“Try hacking it,” I said. The original Mac operating system was, in fact, not a whole lot more than a toy, relative to a unix-based OS. The advantage of Apple having struggle through most of the 1990s, repeatedly failing to ship modern software for their machines, was a system that was almost entirely too dumb to fall for the usual modern tricks which let remote attackers take over your computer.

Phil knew what I was talking about. He smiled. “Okay,” he said. “You’re smart, I’ll give you that.”

“And there’s a version of Linux I can install if I have to.”

He walked slowly away, nodding, and I returned to finding places for things in my office. Late in the day, as I was assessing the layout of notebooks, software backups, and Yellow Submarine figurines around my desk, Doug rushed in.

“Do you have a minute?” he asked, nearing panic. “Of course you do. I have a report for a customer. They need it before the end of the day. It needs some editing. You can do it, right?”

“Sure,” I said. Doug thrust some fax pages at me, tightly spaced lines of small text. It wasn’t a mess, but it wasn’t great.

“Can I get the text?” I asked.

Doug made a scoffing sound and leaned in to watch me mark up the page.

“Who’s the client?” We kept the office dim, so I hadn’t noticed until he’d stepped forward how flushed he was. “The client’s in New York,” he said. “They have to have it by the end of their day. That’s now.”

“I’m hurrying,” I said, and I did. As I finished each page, I handed them to him. After every couple of pages he hurried across the office and stuck them in the fax machine.

Once the last pages disappeared into a plastic box, all whirring and beeping, he sighed, Doug sighed, his shoulders folding in again. He didn’t look great. I began to wonder how much I didn’t know.

“That was kind of a crap job,” he told me as we walked to his car.

I said, “Huh?”

“I was expecting you to re-write some of it. Make it better. We’re opening our own office in New York City for ISG—” That’s the Information Security Group, who we were. “—and we to do a lot better than that crap you turned in today.”

I wasn’t sure where that was going or what I had to do with it, but there we were at the car and Doug was rubbing his eyes, so I let it slide. He plucked a box of take-out from his back seat.

“Another offering to the mold god, I guess,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

“Yes, they do.”

As we pulled out of the parking lot, Doug asked, “Oh, hey: about that security training CD-ROM.” He chuckled. “I guess you didn’t like it?”

“It was terrible.”

“Well, did you see those two guys walking out of the office, maybe mid-afternoon?”

“Sure,” I said. There were something like 36 people working there, some on the lower floor but most on the upper level, though nearly half of the staff seemed to be travelling on any given day, en route to or from a customer site, or ensconced somewhere doing actual security work, plus a few folk finishing summer vacations. Even on my first week there, new people stood out to me in our dark, quiet office.

“You just cost them three-million dollars.”


Doug laughed. “Kroll was shopping for another security-training company, and we were close to buying the company owned by those two guys. Maybe only one guy owned it, and the other guy was a partner. Anyway, the point is they gave us their best sample for us to review, and whatever you said made Mary go back in and say, ‘No, no thank you.’”

“Holy shit!” I said. “I didn’t mean to cost those guys — I mean, it did suck. It really sucked. It was pretty bad.”

“You didn’t cost those guys anything, you saved the company three-million dollars.”

I watched the grotesquely overpriced clap-board houses glide past on the other side of window of the front passenger seat in Doug’s car.

That night, I met his girlfriend. She was pretty, no doubt, and at least kind of smart, the illusion of brains boosted by her faint British lilt. Grow up in the right place and Americans will think you know what you’re talking about, I suppose. But beyond whatever I couldn’t figure out was wrong with her, there was something wrong between the two of them, like they were talking to one another without actually listening to what the other person had actually just said. It was like the difference between two people dancing together, and two people who’d merely synchronized their choreography.

I didn’t actually like her that much, really. And I was starting to worry about my good friend Doug.

It was that evening, once I’d retreated to their guest room for the evening, that the yelling began. They didn’t build up to it, they just started at a good level of yell and kept it up for a while. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3.2

“How long does it take to download a file?” Jim asked.

“It depends on your bandwith,” I said. “Faster pipe, faster download.”

Jim and Doug shared a smile. For years, going as far back as our time together at Illuminati Online back in Austin, they had been consipring over great ways to use technology. At various times, Doug had come to me asking for help putting together logos for a bank based on a digital currency and a point-to-point encrypted phone system that he and Jim had dreamed up. With cable modems and other higher-speed Internet connections spreading out across not just America but the rest of the world, and the dot-com madness nearing what we’d later know to be its peak, it was the right time for well-heeled geeks to make an inventive move.

Like Doug, Jim McCoy had moved to California from Austin for a virtual-reality start-up called Electric Communities. After more rounds of funding than anyone thought possible — good money repeatedly being thrown after bad — E.C. had finally collapsed, the fantasy of cyberspace vanishing in the face of reality. People did not want to walk through 3-D virtual storefronts, they wanted to search Web pages like the Sears catalogs that had ruled most of the Twentieth Century. Happily, E.C. closed down well before the financial market went bust, in time for most of its decent people to leap into various other ventures.

Doug had co-founded a company called C2Net. At the time, the U.S. government wouldn’t let American companies export products offering strong encryption, which we now take for granted as what makes Internet commerce possible. You can imagine how the U.S. government might want to limit foreign countries from encrypting their network traffic. To get around the export problem, Doug hired a bunch of coders in the U.K. and, using a leaked version of the protected crypto algorythm, became the first American company to offer a Web server with strong crypto to the rest of the world.

Jim had gone off to a twenty-person start-up called RocketMail, which offered what at the time was a new thing: email, but on the Web. Crazy, I know, though one of the high-growth portal sites, Yahoo!, decided it was crazy-like-a-fox and bought RocketMail, rebranding it Yahoo! Mail and offering it alongside their other services as one more way to keep people in their Web browser, looking at other Yahoo! pages, specifically. This made Yahoo! seem much more well-rounded, suddenly competing with services like America Online (or AOL, as they’d eventually call themselves) as a one-stop Internet experience.

Yahoo! stock had swelled alongside all the other so-called dot-coms, making geeky Jim McCoy, of the thick, wire-rimmed glasses and ratty ponytail, quite wealthy. It only took one eye-surgery and a haircut — along with the confidence that comes from knowing you’re not just a bad ass, you’ve also got millions of dollars to back you up — to make Jim look at a glance like the cool guy I’d always known him to be.

C2Net, on the other hand, had stalled out somewhere along the way. Other companies followed Doug’s strategy of coding crypto outside the U.S., eventually causing the export ban to be lifted. While that was a great achievement, the company’s commercial success remained elusive. Doug and his co-founder, Sameer Parekh, both took jobs with Kroll-O’Gara to do security consulting while their company worked out its next steps.

It’s great when someone you like becomes wildly successful. It’s even better when two people you like, who are also good friends, both become wildly successful. However, it’s slightly awkward-making when only one of them profits wildly from great success. Jim had lost none of the exciting energy that had driven him for so long, while Doug’s cool confidence seemed to vibrate with an anxiety that only seemed to calm when the two old friends would look at each other and smile. Clearly, they had a plan.

“It doesn’t matter how big a pipe you’ve got,” said Doug. “I mean, it does — it matters a lot — but what matters a lot more, a lot more often, is how big a pipe the server has.”

“Imagine if a server has one big file,” Jim said, gesturing with his hands. “If a thousand people want that file—”

“If only a thousand people want it,” Doug added.

“—then the server needs a thousand times as much bandwidth as the people at home.”

“In technical terms,” Doug said, “that’s a gigantic ass-load of network pipe.”

“So,” said Jim. “Imagine I’m a server, and Doug has already started downloading a file, and then you reach out to me because you want the file, too. But because I’m also trickling the file out in little chunks to a thousand other people at the same time, you can’t pull it down as fast as you would otherwise. What if there was some way you could ask Doug to send you the parts of the file that he had already downloaded, while you focused on getting new parts from the server?”

“You’d get the file a bit faster,” I said, “though presuming Doug is some random home user, his upload bandwidth is going to be pretty shitty.”

Doug nodded. “This is true,” he said. “But what if the server to put you in touch with everyone who’d ever downloaded that file—”

“At least,” Jim said, “everyone who was online right then—”

“—and who still had pieces of the file that you didn’t have,” Doug added, “then you can max out a home Internet connection, even a fast one.”

“You could even encourage people to stay online, sharing little bits of files with other people, hugely magnifying any server’s download power,” Jim said.

“How?” I asked.

“With a crypto-currency,” Doug said, “or at least something that can’t trivially be counterfeited, which downloaders can give to file-sharers, essentially ‘buying’ preferential treatment and better service. Then the file-sharers can re-use the digital coins with other sharers, making their own downloads even faster.”

“We call it mojo,” Jim said. “You want me to share something with you, so you share some of your mojo with me. I spend mojo to get something from someone else.”

“Or you don’t spend mojo, so your download takes longer but still not as long as if your download was throttled by a single server’s pipe.” Doug and Jim smiled again. “The plan is for us to seed the system with a bunch of mojo, and to reward sharers with extra mojo even if downloaders aren’t paying for what they’re keeping online.”

“And if users want more mojo?” I asked.

“They buy it from us,” Doug said.

“Imagine you have two dials,” said Jim. “You want something faster, you turn the mojo knob and pay for the service. You want more mojo, you dial up the storage knob and let the service store more little bits of files for sharing. We give people mojo to host files, even if they’re not being actively downloaded, to persist files in the system. The next morning you wake up to find you’ve earned mojo.”

“Or you buy more mojo from us,” Doug added.

I felt like I was missing something. “So you’re talking to different companies about making deals to share their content?”

Again, Jim and Doug glanced at each other, but this time they seemed to be trying hard not to smile.

“Not per se,” Doug said, breaking into a grin. “The beautiful thing is that this doesn’t require the content people to do anything.”

“How so?”

Jim shrugged. “Once a file’s been uploaded into the system, split up into however many tiny little pieces across however many computers, it doesn’t need a main server to host the file at all. All you need is someone to track who’s offering which file.”

Doug raised his hand. “That’s also us.”

Jim continued. “If you want a file, you ask us who’s got some pieces of it, and we put you in touch with your peers. Then it’s a peer-to-peer conversation after that. We don’t even know what content you’re talking about, all we’re doing is putting you in touch with other people who have data you think you want.” He shrugged with cherubic innocence. “And if you spend mojo, everything goes faster.”

My mind thrummed from shock. Somewhere, what remained of the fourteen-year-old software pirate I had once been began to laugh. For the first time I could remember, I had a hard time speaking.

“Motherfucking any file, you’re talking about,” I managed to get out. “Any file, from anywhere, but it wouldn’t be stored anywhere, it would be everywhere. And you wouldn’t know who had downloaded it, so no one could go after you for serving it.”

Jim smiled, nodding. “It would be hard to prove that anyone ever had the whole file. All we could say is that these people were thought to have some pieces of a file matching a certain fingerprint at one point in time. If you can’t bust a search engine for serving up a link to something, then it’s not illegal to connect the people who have data with the people who want data. The people who have it don’t even need to know what they have. All they know is that they’ve carved out part of their hard drive as part of Mojo Nation.”

“Mojo Nation,” I said. “I like it.”

“The speed is important,” Doug said idly, “when you imagine that a compact disc full of music is, like, 600 or 650 megabytes, so at 48K per second—”

“If you’re lucky,” Jim added.

“—that’s, like, three and a half hours. If you can max out a DSL line, you’re talking less than 15 minutes.”

“No, you’re not,” I said quietly, and both of their eyes snapped wide open. Quickly, I added, “At my last job, after they laid off everyone around me, I took over a couple of computers that no one was using any longer and passed the days copying all the CDs I owned — then about a hundred CDs that sat in a big, fat disc changer in our break room, then stacks and stacks of CDs that I’d borrowed from friends — to the hard drives of one machine or another and then converting the music to MP3. It took at least an hour per disc just to copy the data to the hard drive, then it could take a couple of hours to convert the audio with reasonable compression, so I’d usually spend the day copying CDs onto the machines and then kick off the conversion before heading home. Once it was digital, though, you’re only talking 65 megabytes per CD.”

“What?!” they both said at the same time.

“There’s no way you’re going to get an order of magnitude savings,” Doug began, then he paused, thinking.

I shook my head. “It’s more that most CDs are only about 45-minutes long. But yes, I swear, you’re talking something like 65 or maybe 80 megs for a lot of albums, with perfectly reasonable compression.”

Jim grinned. “So that’s half an hour to drive to a music store, buy a CD, and drive home, but a minute and a half to download it.”

Doug began making notes. “We’ll do the math,” he said with a tone of doubt, then he paused again. “Do you know how many megabytes a video ends up being?”

“Uh…no.” Suddenly, somehow, I felt like an idiot. It was the obvious next question. The truth was that I’d never had a computer powerful enough to do much with video. But I should’ve at least thought about it. Leave it to Doug to stay a step ahead.

“I don’t know what your schedule looks like,” Jim said, “but we’ll need a logo at some point.”

“Done,” I said, drunk from shock but clear on what I could easily do.

Walking back to Doug’s place in the cool evening air, I looked up at the stars. “It’s beautiful out here,” I said, fanning my arms out along my sides.

“It is indeed,” he said.

“I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe what you’ve come up with. That is genuinely the craziest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.”

“Well, thanks,” said Doug. But the further we got from downtown Mountain View, and the further we wound through the neat rows of clean, suburban homes, the more his shoulders slouched forward and the more slowly he walked.

“Ah,” he said once we rounded the final bend toward his house. “I see my girlfriend is not home yet. I was hoping you’d finally get to meet her.”

“Cool,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it; I’m sure she’s awesome.”

Doug laughed. He’d been married when I’d known him in Austin, though clearly he wasn’t married any longer.

“Whatever happened with Amanda?”

“Oh,” he said, “you know.” He told me the story. It wasn’t that different in principle from other stories I’d heard before, people being people anywhere you go, with the upshot that Doug being Doug, and rarely being without a girlfriend, he came out of the story with a girlfriend.

“What’s she up to this evening?” I asked.

“Oh, she’s probably finishing up at school. She’s getting her MBA from the Haas School of Business.” He checked my face. “It’s a famous business school,” he added.

“I figured,” I said. We walked up his front lawn.

“No, I mean it’s a really big deal.” Doug sighed. “I also applied, but they didn’t accept me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, that sucks.”

“Well,” he said, shrugging, fumbling with a keyring. “The only thing I asked her is not to talk about it all the time. I told her I could take hearing about it for no more than fifteen minutes every day, and that’s it.” He made a cutting motion in the air. When we walked in, he stood gripping a chair-back for several moments before that unnamed frenetic energy of Silicon Valley swelled again, and he looked up. “Something to drink?” he asked.

“Water, please,” I said.

“You’ll meet her soon enough, I’m sure,” he said. He shrugged, handing a glass. “She’ll be home soon. I just hope she doesn’t ask me to do her homework again. The instructor evidently asked them to put together, like, a basic spreadsheet, and she couldn’t do it.” He chuckled. “She just didn’t know how. I was like, ‘You’re going to business school, and you don’t know how to use Excel,’ and she said, ‘I thought you were going to help me,’ and I was like, ‘I can’t do all your homework for you. You’re the one who got into business school, knock yourself out.’”

“Jesus,” I said. “Oh, hey — I wanted to say: thanks again for letting me stay with you.”

“It’s no trouble,” he said. Then his face softened. “Thanks for hanging out. It’s fun.”

“It is,” I said. “And that is a crazy, fucking brilliant idea you have there. I want to hear more about it.”

“Indeed,” he said, bowing slightly.

The whole world would hear more about the idea, in a lightly reduced different form, though they’d call it Bit Torrent, and it would in fact transform how files were shared — legally or otherwise — on the Internet. But we’ll get there. In the meantime, I had my own work to do.


Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3.1

It was hot out there, too, certainly, you could feel it in the air and see it on the streets. Some frenetic energy, as yet unnamed by science, propelled people through their days in a collective rush toward wealth.

In Austin, the traffic was thick with older and newer cars and trucks, the perfect and the dinged intertwined, carefully leaving enough several car-lengths between vehicles to reduce the risk of an accident. When construction closed a lane, the civilized response was the zipper: every car in the lane beside the closure taking its turn to let someone in, and every merging car waiting for its turn to fold into the path forward.

From a conference room at work, overlooking a Bay Area stretch of the 101 Freeway, traffic gleamed with new cars of mostly foreign makes and models. There were few American cars, and trucks were rare. And on the one hand, while the traffic was pitiless — the “we’re all in this together” spirit of the zipper was nowhere to be found — it cut both ways. It didn’t matter how fast you were going: if you left space enough for a car to physically fit between you and the next vehicle, you shouldn’t be surprised when a car moved to fill it, like any other vacuum in nature, usually without signally, many times abruptly, often for absolutely no apparent reason.

Bay Area driving culture was the exact opposite of Texas roads where, as we liked to say, an armed society is a polite society. But it wasn’t a fear of being shot that kept me from cutting people off in traffic, or that made me respect the unwritten social contract of the zipper. I genuinely enjoyed waving people over when they seemed ready to merge in front of me. I enjoyed waving a thank-you in my rear-view mirror after someone let me cut over in front of them. So the relative brutality and selfishness of Bay Area driving would have been infuriating for me, if there hadn’t also been an upside.

In Austin, and in Texas in general, you could go something like ten miles over the speed limit, and no more, without being guaranteed that the next cop who sees you will pull you over and rather aggressively ask what the hell you thought you were doing. In the Bay Area, though, most of the time if you were only going ten miles over the speed limit, you’re almost guaranteed to see other cars shooting past you, sometimes honking.

My heart soared when I discovered that eighty miles an hour was the basic flow of traffic along several a wide, winding freeways. My favorite was 280, which parallels 101 along the western boundary of Silicon Valley, dividing the tech towns from the long and sharply rising hillside — a mountain range, really, to this Texas boy — which itself separates the warm flatland of the peninsula from the cold Pacific Coast air. Low clouds sprint east off the ocean, building up on the western edge of the hillside until some critical mass breaks through, foggy tendrils waterfalling down the eastern stretch of hills, rolling in to calm any late-afternoon heat, with me, shooting north at more than ninety miles an hour, my ragged red convertible still being passed by shiny European road yachts driven by silver-haired men, lost in thought.

Few people talk about Silicon Valley from within Silicon Valley, even in the static-filled days of that unnamed frenetic energy, throwing off radical sparks of dot-com and Web and broadband-to-the-home. Still, there was no confusing the place for what it was. I had to be reminded repeatedly that until pretty recently, most of the peninsula had been a few scattered suburbs surrounded by tens of miles of rich farmland, fruits and nuts and vegetables in tidy rows where office parks and burrito joints and more office parks and some apartments and glass-and-steel office columns had come to squat. You really wouldn’t know it by looking at the place, which my Texas-tuned estimation figured had been built pretty much from scratch in the mid-1980s, with some office parks added or updated as much as a decade later. This felt odd to me, having come from a place where space was hardly a premium. In Texas there was always more room to build, and every year brought updated styles of home construction, or new modes of compositing strip malls, or a wave of gas station updates. Growing up, I could peg within three years when any housing development had come together, while in Silicon Valley, only two things seemed to change once the place had been built up: the expensively crafted logos which hung off the top edges of four- and six-story office buildings, glowing the names of whichever tech companies had been rolling in cash most recently, and the highway billboards, which were optimistically nerdy well before the rest of the world wrapped its head around the Internet as something that was not going away, that would definitely be a deeply important part of your life, and that would only be summoned into being by some secret alchemical combination of computer code and market vision.

At least, those two things seemed to be the strongest vectors of change from the perspective of a haggard red convertible sprinting down 101 at a speed approaching three digits. Exit the freeway, calm yourself, and drive a few blocks, and you may find one more degree of freedom in that time and place. Even though the people who’ve made lives for themselves in Palo Alto and Mountain View may believe that the normal rules of the world don’t apply to them — and this misconception would bring them enough grief soon enough — the life and times of restaurants didn’t seem to be any different there than any other. If you were very profitable you could survive, at least for a while, but the churn was high and if you didn’t keep upgrading your signs and your service you would quickly find yourself left behind.

Doug lived a couple of blocks from Mountain View’s small downtown strip where, after my first day at work, we walked over and met Jim. The look and the feel of that walk though cool, late-summer air as a few street lights began to flicker to life is forever cradled in my memory, and though I have no idea what we talked about as we walked over to Tied House that early evening, I’ll never forget what they told me once we got there.


Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3

I’d found myself in California, though that says so little for having been so much.

It was cool, certainly. “Air-conditioning, but on the outside,” I’d said at the start of this story, and having just suffered through a summer’s worth of days when I’d been unable to keep my computer up for more than twenty minutes before its core would swelter from heat internal — the black arrow pointer stuttering across the screen before the whole machine crashed hard — the consistently temperate Pacific Ocean breeze could not have been more pleasant.

This coolness in the air changed everything over what I’d come to expect to be normal in Texas, from how the buildings came together (thin wooden walls, without insulation) to where the people came together (anywhere, everywhere, on the streets, all the time). It would be a long time before it would change me, though it wouldn’t take long for the process to start as I first got my lay of the land.

Hold your right hand up in front of you — fingers straight upright and together, palm facing away from you, allowing your thumb to hang naturally, creating a slight space between it and the forefinger knuckle — and you’ll be looking at a good map of more than half of the San Francisco Bay Area. Your thumbnail is roughly the shape and size of the city of San Francisco itself, seven miles tall and seven miles wide, with water on all three sides. Along your forefinger are the cities of the East Bay, Oakland and Berkeley and others, first joined from thumbnail to hand by the double-decker Bay Bridge; ignore for now the fact that there’s a gaping emptiness above your thumb, where the Golden Gate Bridge joins San Francisco to the rich towns of Marin, in the North Bay.

The deep crease, where the meat of your thumb joins the rest of your hand, is where you find the city of San Jose. Between San Jose and San Francisco, on the inside of your thumb, the Bay Area Peninsula, is Silicon Valley, where towns ramble north from Cupertino and Santa Clara to Sunnyvale and Mountain View and Palo Alto and beyond, each one easier on the eyes and harder on the wallet as you wander away from the sprawl Hispanic poverty around San Jose to the intimidating beautify of San Francisco. Not that it was a clear gradient all the way up the fifty miles between the two cities, far from it. In those early days, outside of the handsome homes and glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the city, I often had a hard time telling the rich from the poor.

One of the first days, driving around Palo Alto with Doug, he’d jabbed a finger toward a row of flat-roofed wooden homes, surrounded by low, lush greenery but built to press nearly up to the curb. “That’s a million-dollar home,” he said. “Or more. One-point-two, probably.” I could not believe it. In Texas, a million-dollar home would sit far back from the curb, cripplingly thick brick walls holding off the outside world, three stories of open air and windows you would never open — God, why would you want the outside air in? — surrounded by neatly mowed grass that grew yellow and sun-burned along its tips even when heavily watered in blatant violation of the strict water conversation plans imposed some years. That place looked like my tin-roofed shack, times eight, minus the tin.

“You have got to be joking,” I said.

“There are bigger places, for sure,” he told me. “People are fighting with the city to tear down these flimsy things and instead put up multi-story McMansions with elevators, insulated walls with double-pane windows built right up to the edge of the property lines. So a lot of these are getting replaced by the new wave of money that’s coming through here.”

Doug wrestled with the steering wheel, doing something I seldom saw. He frowned. Money, and the new wave of it, was a thick current of heat that flowed over the coolness, just beyond the fingertip reach of most.

Going to California

Author’s Note

This whole time, I have been successful at putting off thinking about what I was actually going to say about California, but following a recent class on personal essay (by the great Jane Ganahl) I reckoned I needed to one together, and I admit I’m taking my time. Still, now I have an general outline to write against, and so regular daily posting will resume on Monday. Thanks for being patient as I put the rest of this story together. I’m aiming to be done by the end of June. Let’s see if I can stick the landing there. Thanks for your encouragement.