Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.5

“I grew up in a time,” I told him, “when people, grown-ups, were still proud to say they didn’t even know how to turn on a computer, like it was a mark of status or something. When I was fourteen, I managed to save a little bit of money and my parents for whatever reason let me buy a computer. I ended up running a bulletin-board system from my bedroom through high school.”

“What kind?” he asked. I noticed that the girl with her back to me had stopped typing.

“Oh,” I said, “the sharing-text-files kind. You know. The exploring-places kind.”

He looked back towards me, but he was no longer looking through me. He was looking into me.

I continued. “I was mostly a pirate, but I learned from the phreakers. Hung out on chat lines, trading numbers and things. Figured stuff out. Free long-distance You know. You’re from Chicago, right? There was a big group up that way, a lot of boards.”

He smiled. “In Chicago,” he said, “we used to hang out on loop lines.” That’s right. They were phone numbers which didn’t terminate once someone called in, they looped back around and as far as we could ever tell they’d let any number of people call in. “The phone company uses those lines for testing,” he said.

“I remember.”

“I found one, one time, that turned out to be the main loop line for a central office. To help with troubleshooting line problems, they had it piped over the intercom system for the whole office.” He paused to see if I’d get it.

I did. “You mean everything said by a bunch of hacker kids was being broadcast out over an office at the phone company?!”

He giggled. “Yeah,” he said, smoothing back blonde wisps. “It was pretty bad, but we had no way of knowing. We only used it at night and on weekends, when the office was empty.”

I knew exactly what stupid things young hacker kids told each other.

“Holy crap,” I said.

“Yeah. Then one day we skipped school and got on the loop.” He wrinkled his face. “It was bad.”

“How bad?”

“Not really bad, actually.” He laughed again. “It was more funny than anything. A guy in the office got on the line and was like, ‘You kids get off this line, this is phone company property, don’t you know this is coming out of every speaker in the ceiling of every room in our office?’ And we were like, ‘Really?’ And he goes, ‘Yes!’ So of course we starting going, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckers! Fuck, fuck, fucking everything!’ And he was all, ‘You goddamn kids, I’m going to find you and you’re going to fucking pay!’ And we said, ‘You know everyone in your office just heard you say that, right?’ And he was like, ‘Goddammit,’ and slam, hung up the phone, and we all hung up and we never called back.” He stopped laughing. “They didn’t catch us, of course.”

“Holy crap,” I said, feeling a grin pressing hard into my cheeks.

“They call me Lineman,” he said, extending his hand. “What was your handle?” he asked.

Without missing a beat, though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it, I told him my true name.

“Never heard of you,” he said, quickly cold.

“I’m okay with that,” I said, and coming from the hacker underground, where reputation was the currency of respect, not caring about your rep either meant you were too ignorant to realize you were poor or you were too rich to care how poor other people thought you were.

I was neither, mostly. “I’ve been out of the game for a long, long time,” I said, “but it was fun, back in the day.”

He began to smile again, then he looked away, at a large cardboard box on the floor.

“You know what that it?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Five-hundred lockpick sets. Brad had the idea to give them away at a conference, but—” He shrugged. “Turns out that’s illegal.”

“A minor detail,” I said.

Lineman winced. “He’s not very big into details.”

“Huh,” I said. “That’s not good.”

“It’s actually bad,” he admitted, leaning over to rip the box open and pulling out a few plastic bags inside each of which was a leather pouch, a little longer than my palm but maybe only half again as wide.

He ripped open one of the plastic bags and unsnapped the leather sheath, exposing some long, metal implements, each with a different kind of craggly bit on the end.

“I was thinking,” he said, “that I’d put the word out that anyone who wants one can have one. If they’ll just send me an email with their address, I’ll mail it to them.”

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

He fished out another handful and held them out toward me. “Want some?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Know how they work?”

“Not really.”

So he taught me how to pick locks.

“That’s shockingly easy,” I said.

“It’s kinda embarrassing how easy it is,” Lineman said. “But these are easy locks. They’re all different, you just have to learn them.”

“Huh,” I said. The girl had turned around to look at me. She was still smiling. I felt myself looking at her differently, though I wasn’t sure exactly how.

“We should hang out,” she said. Lineman was nodding.

“I think we will,” I said.

It wasn’t until late that night, after struggling with all the locks in my apartment and finally getting to the point where a few of them would open trivially, when it finally occurred to me that I had a lot to tell Phil.

Later, a voice in my head added: When there’s more to say.

It would not be long.

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