When he was around, Jim was a good influence as well as a bad one. I’d gone from not having a computer other than my work machine — I’d kept the massive collection of cables and adapters and accessories and media readers that I’d amassed over fifteen years of late-Twentieth Century computer hacking, but I had divested myself of monitors and machines before leaving Austin, since it looked as though I’d soon have the cash to buy modern tech, at least for a while.
Jim had many orders of magnitude more money than I did, and an even more aggressive love for computers than I ever did, which was really saying something, so hanging out with him on any given day of the week typically involved a trip to Fry’s Electronics, a chain of tech stores that hadn’t yet made it to Austin and so boggled me with the range of products they stocked.
In four months, I’d gone from life in a tin-roofed shotgun shack with my cat off an unpaved alley underneath a busy flight path and across the street from a freight train line, wondering both what I’d be doing for food next month and which was going to destroy my weary and aging tech, the heat in the air or the sweat from my fingers, suddenly switching over to whipping around between my quiet poolside apartment, a short walk from the commuter train, and a fantastical warehouse of the tools with which Silicon Valley had been built. Even better, beside you shopped the people who’d built it. Yet better, for the first time in my life I could probably have afforded to buy at least one of nearly anything in the store. It’s safe to say that a whole world of computing opened up before me.
Jim often needed something at Fry’s, so I ended up spending a lot of time at Fry’s. This made kind of a bad influence. Did I need more memory? Who didn’t! With his advice and encouragement, I spent a lot of money there as well. This made him a pretty good influence, because it’s too easy to waste money on technology that won’t end up doing what you’d have wanted. One of the first things I did was to build a Microsoft Windows machine up from scratch. Windows had always looked to me like a fantastical waste of time, all these settings you had to know about and fiddle in order to push the envelope any, but if you didn’t want to do a lot of pushing and were willing to buy name-brand parts, you could avoid suffering through getting the drivers for all the cheap tech playing well with each other. So for only a little less than an equivalent Apple Mac, I got into my first personal Windows machine. There were simply way too many of the damn things in the world to avoid needing to understand them better. But I didn’t have a lot of faith in Microsoft, so I made sure that the pieces I bought would work with the free if super-techie software alternatives.
On any given day, before or after Fry’s, Jim and I would stop at the Caribbean rib joint. He liked picking up the tab, because in relative terms it didn’t matter much to him, and everyone else delighted in finding new ways to intercept the bill before Jim could get to it. My living room began to fill with shiny new tech — like Sega’s final, failed platform, the Dreamcast, as well as other miscellaneous fobs and toys. It seemed like life could go on that way forever.
I wiped barbecue pepper from my chin, “There’s this guy named Doug,” I said.
“Oh, Jesus,” Jim said.
“Nothing bad about him,” I said, “just something he did at work before he took off.”
“What did he do?”
“He hired this girl purely on the grounds that she’d just graduated from MIT, and that she passed the lunch interview with one of our several resident MIT grads.” I put my hands up. “I understand how you should expect an MIT computer-science grad to be able to apply herself somewhere, somehow, but this girl is now at the point of causing serious trouble.”
“It’s possible to get a computer science degree,” Jim said, “and end up knowing absolutely nothing about how to use computers.”
“Shit,” I said. “Like mathematicians and calculators?”
“More like how astronomy has very little to do with how telescopes work, as Rob likes to say. What does this have to do with Doug? That he hired her?”
“And the signs were there that she was clearly not workplace material before he left.”
“A bunch of the other women in the office who weren’t Mary had pulled him into a conference room to tell him to tell her to leave them alone. He ended up pulling her aside and listing off the top ten non-verbal cues that someone is no longer interested in talking with you.”
“I’m not kidding. ‘They check their watch,’ was one, or ‘They turn away from you and begin typing.’ She took notes, seemed appreciative. The next day, when she stopped by my desk to tell me how many seconds each traffic light had been, and how different that was from the same day of the previous week, I only had to glance at my wrist and she stopped cold, turned on her heel and walked away. I wasn’t even wearing a watch.”
“At least she’s paying attention.”
“Mmm, I don’t think she is, really. She doesn’t seem capable of doing any work.”
“What? With a CS degree from MIT?”
“Now you’re being mean. The problem with Rain Girl isn’t that you have to throw a handful of paperclips on the floor to escape because she has to count them all before moving on. It’s that she does mean things to people. I’d have thought that someone capable of understanding and of changing after being told she annoys people would have been told already, and would have changed.”
“Maybe. It was MIT, though. I’m serious, you’d be surprised how long people can live in little pockets where all kinds of different behaviors are okay.”
“So there’s a dork underground.”
“Basically. There are all sorts of undergrounds.”
“Well, she’s going to need to go back there soon. Yesterday, she ate a burrito belonging to our long-suffering administrative assistant. She’d opened the fridge at work, took someone else’s clearly labeled food, and ate it. She denied having done it, until it was pointed out that the foil burrito wrap was in the trashcan by her desk. Then she was like, ‘Oh, that burrito, I thought you meant another one,’ and the admin was like, ‘I can see my name on the foil in the trash can from here.’ And it went downhill from there. Rain Girl makes probably three times what our admin makes, so apologizing and kicking her $10 for lunch should be nothing, but she’s refusing to do it, doesn’t think she has to because nobody told her that something in the kitchen could belong to somebody else. Even putting aside the fact that she can’t seem to do anything that people need doing, I’m afraid she’s going to piss somebody off so much that they snap and do something terrible to her.”
Jim shook his head with a painful expression. “Keep me posted,” he said.