In late 1999, the population of the tech industry was heavily skewed toward a dorkily geek crew. We’re a bunch of geeks, even today, don’t get me wrong. But the adults who’d been socialized before the rise of the Internet, before the mid-1990s, had gotten into computers because they were big, fat dorks —figuratively, for the most part, but dorky nonetheless. They were awkward socially, or they had grooming eccentricities. Speech impediments. You name it. But computing smoothed over a lot of that. In a large part, because it allowed tiny niches of very specific interests to recognize one another and come together, and to grow into something resembling a community.
I went to see a movie with Rob and some of his friends, one of whom was a slight man with a wispy beard. He cradled a stuffed animal like a baby, and it was only once the movie began that I realized it was a puppet, his left hand slipped inside so that it could respond to him when he stroked it. When something funny would happen, he’s glance at the puppet and they share a reaction.
Standing out in front of the theater after the show, after that guy had walked off to his car, I asked about him.
Rob rocked back on his heels, crossing arms over his small belly. “He’s a special one,” Rob said. “Have you ever heard the term ‘furry’?” I was still calibrating the subtleties of English accents, so I knew there was something compressed within what he was saying but I wasn’t able to unpack it.
“That’s a new one on me,” I said.
He traded glances with a couple of the other people there, most of whom looked away. Ah, I thought, he’s hoping someone else will explain.
“They…like stuffed animals,” he said. “Really, really like stuffed animals. Sometimes they have parties where they dress up in costumes. The costumes have been modified to allow —”
“I get it.”
“If you’re a furry,” said someone else, the only woman there, “it doesn’t mean you want to have sex with stuffed animals.”
“Yeah,” Rob said. “It might mean you want to have sex with someone dressed up as a stuffed animal.”
“Fuck off, Rob,” she said. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, which was geek for, “I’m sorry I lost my temper, please give me a second to pull myself back together.” Then she looked at me. “There are all kinds of words for all the different varieties of people who are into whatever it is that they’re into. Maybe you just like to dress up, maybe you like to fool around, maybe you’re into stuffed animals or toys or whatever. I doesn’t matter. It’s not really about the sex. Some people would just do anything to have a friend.”
That I could understand. As the days cooled down and the end of the year came near, I found myself looking for friends. Jim was looking to leave Yahoo and focus full time on the startup he’d soon be building with Doug, but his dreams of travel were still strong, and he had a ton of vacation time built up at work. This was important, because he also had a ton of stock that hadn’t yet vested. Sticking around another six months, was worth millions of dollars to him, but as hard as it was to hire good people, you still couldn’t totally check out and sail through half a year without getting fired. So he’d blocked out a good number of three-week chunks over the next four months when he simply wouldn’t be around.
I needed more friends. Specifically, I wanted a girlfriend, and this brings us back to the Mancini mansion.
At the time, the single, straight guy to single, straight girl ratio in Silicon Valley was something like 8:1. I’m not making this up — this was the number reported in the local paper. Once, an organization called something like “Single Women of America” had their annual convention about five blocks from my apartment, due to the density of relatively eligible bachelors. The year before, they’d met somewhere in Alaska. I poked my head in at one point. They had seminars lined up like, “How to Speak to Your Geek,” and “Star Trek: What You Need To Know”.
On one hand, I was shallow enough at the time that simply attending such a conference pretty much ruled you out as girlfriend material. On the other hand, there were parties at the Mancini.
At the time, and still today, the single, straight girl to single, straight guy ratio in San Francisco was not as badly skewed in favor of the guys as it was skewed toward girls in Silicon Valley, but it was skewed. Just like there was a complex web of relationships within a sizable group of geek guys, some of those relationships extended to a couple of women who lived in the city, who shared a complex web of relationships with a sizable group of women. The city girls and the valley guys sized one another up over plates of salmon and roast potatoes and bottles of totally decent wine.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t rich and I didn’t work for a well-known company. If I’d been back in Austin and I’d said, “Ah, yes, I was brought out here by an international private detective agency to do cool things I can’t talk about,” I’d have any single woman’s attention — if she didn’t think I was too full of myself to carry on a conversation, which knowing cool Texas women could very likely be the case. In the dot-com boom, it would be months before I’d register as someone interesting.
Not that I didn’t try. San Francisco was a 45-minute drive up to the end of the peninsula, and while some people simply found that an intolerable distance, I was from Texas. My internal mental yardstick of how far was “far” was different from most people. The fact that I was even remotely interested in the arts was enough to get me in the loop for when the city girls were going to live theater or see live music in a coffee-shop.
Something uncool happened on my second solo adventure up to meet up with this new group of people — there were guys in that group, too, of course, just like we had a couple of women in ours, so it wasn’t weird. I came out of the theater to find that my car’d been broken into: a window smashed, contents rifled, though it wasn’t obvious that anything had been taken. This was the same car that had been stolen and returned to me back in Austin. It had seen rougher times, but it upset me a lot more than I thought it should.
Driving home that night, I felt a dark cloud rolling in behind me. Elements in my mind that had been quiet for years were coming back online. My paranoia had found fresh fuel in my new life in California.
With my best friends either traveling, or still getting themselves back together after a long depression, by the time December rolled around I suddenly hit a pocket where I was spending a lot of time alone. I spent a bunch of money once a week at the comic store, and I ate Caribbean ribs as often as I could, but I didn’t yet think I knew people like Rob and Arturo well enough to reach out to them. I ha a hard time shaking the sense that I wasn’t dorky enough for my chosen tribe. I didn’t use Linux; I didn’t know C. I liked hanging out with Phil, who was very social, but he was my boss. So I felt a little stuck, not least of which because I could only push the dark cloud back so far on my own.
The long shadow of my relative isolation was especially unhealthy for me at work. As the only person on staff with any design skills, I’d begun working on the interface for our scanning service. If people couldn’t fire it up and see the results on a Web page then it didn’t exist, and for some reason the pages I’d spent more than a month building didn’t look “real” to me — they looked like a bunch of elements floating on a page, without anything tying them together.
Maybe they were okay. Maybe the paranoia was making me insecure. Probably. The larger problem was that if we didn’t start showing results soon, our boss would lose his political battle with the Packet Storm guy, and that would be a disaster. I’d only interacted with Brian, the guy in charge of Packet Storm, a couple of times, but he was palpably self-obsessed, and a tyrant. Phil had to win.
Doug said to be honest, so I went to Phil.
“I’m stuck,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said. I was going along with him down to Santa Cruz, where he was picking up a few diving tanks to test some different gas mixtures from the relative safety of his apartment complex swimming pool.
“I can put some pages together, I could even get big parts of a site up and running, but it’d all be handmade, everything custom. I’m under the impression that over the last couple of years, serious Web design people have developed a lot of process and procedure around how you build something maintainable. I can figure it out, but I don’t think we have the time.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I know a guy,” I said. “Nn old friend of mine. Really old friend. Like, I’ve known him half my life. We worked together for a summer when I was sixteen. He spent a couple of years at a big Web design firm in Dallas. He knows this shit inside and out. If we could bring him out for a couple of weeks under contract, it’d be enough to get me bootstrapped. I could take it from there.”
Four years earlier, that summer I went to Seattle, the promise I’d made Karynne as she lay dying was that I would look out for Matt, her son, my friend. He could get a little crazy, sometimes, and she’d consistently been the only one who could lead him away from the edge. I felt like it was my responsibility to save him.
“How much’ll it cost us?” he asked. I gave him a number. “Piece of piss,” he said. “And who knows, friend of yours, maybe he’ll get a job, yeah?”
“That could be cool,” I said.
“You trust him, though?”
“Absolutely,” I said.