Going to California

Making Magic — 3

Since I’d learned to focus on classes, and work, most everything else in my life had taken a backseat. Still, I had other things going on when I wasn’t working or on the ’net — or driving; good lord, I spent countless hours just driving — other threads being sewn into my life that I haven’t talked a lot about yet.

Some of these other threads, a lot of them, need to find a home in a different place, in a different story, but it’s safe to say that girls were involved.

Late in the Spring, talking about girls with Andy over Mexican food, was probably the last possible moment I had to avoid the big crash.

“How’re things with Cookie?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Great.” I thought about it. “Not good,” I added.

“What’s up?”

I sighed. “She thinks I’m crazy,” I said. “And I don’t trust her.”

“Why does she think you’re crazy?”

I breathed in tightly through my teeth.

I’m kind of a weird guy, I know that, always have been. Some people have accused me of trying to be weird on purpose, but I don’t think I have been. I’d be fairly happy relating to people the way everybody else does, but I don’t, and I know that.

So many things were clearer when I was younger — like my sense of numbers, which stretched far beyond their base values. To me, for example, the number 1 was white, of course, pure and voiceless, like the sun in the sky. The number 2 was blue, but a light blue, simple and curious as a child. All even numbers have a little bit of 2 in them, which was why they play together so easily. The 3 is a desaturated yellow, round and soft, just a little smarter than 2. The 4 is a blue darker than 2 and also the first distinctly girly-girl among the numbers — she wears her hair in a bob — while 5 is a boy, a richer yellow than 3, a brave young daredevil who doesn’t mind tumbling a bit. And on and on.

The characters and colors in numbers seemed self-evident as far back as I could remember — for the first 10 digits, at least. Larger numbers are simply the combinations of these characters in myriad different ways. My memorization of the multiplication tables became the charting of interactions — marriages, divorces, unhappy children, and mysteries — of these main characters. It’s like I was wired, nearly from the start, to tell stories.

In third grade, I failed math because I didn’t do the homework. I didn’t think I had to. I already knew all the stories; I knew how things played out. I’d drift away in class, hyperventilating with joy over the truly infinite complexity of the stories I saw unfolding in the dancing numbers before me. How beautiful it was that 6, a mistake-prone young man who couldn’t wear his baseball cap straight, and 7, who was 6’s older sister, both come together to make 42 — which, seen as two numbers, the more innocent characters of 4 and 2, make something like a youthful reflection of the more mature and troubled 6 and 7, as if by sticking together they’d preserve each other’s innocence.

A few times, as a child, I’d insist that some number was obviously a specific color, or some combination of colors. I was always surprised when other people didn’t immediately intuit which colors the numbers were supposed to be, though I learned early on not to bring it up.

I rambled on in this vein for a bit before stopping, looking at Andy for some sign.

He shrugged: Yes, guys like us are always going to come off as at least a little crazy.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I think she thinks I’m actually crazy.”

He raised his eyebrows: For example?

For example, I’ve always loved license plates, and an immature little boy inside of me loves it when a license plate spells out something that sounds funny. Hackers were well known for swapping numbers for letters — 4 looks like an A, 5 looks like an S — so it wasn’t hard for me to find pronounceable plates here and there. Sometimes I’d read them out loud: PZB-84C was “pizz-bak,” or MMP-501 was “imp-sol,” or GOU-108 was “goo-lob.”

After we’d been dating for nearly two years, she and I had been driving back from dinner, winding up a tree-lined road. I loved driving, more than nearly anything else, and I must’ve been doing it that night, reading license plates out loud to myself.

“Oh my God,” Cookie said, a dainty hand covering her mouth. “License plates.”

“What?”

She pointed at the car in front of us. “You were reading the license plate,” she said. Her voice wavered.

“Yes,” I said.

“This whole time,” she said, “you’ve been reading license plates?!”

“What do you — wait: so, this whole time, did you think I was just making weird noises because I was crazy?”

She checked the rear-view mirror on her side, brushing a stray lock of reddish hair back behind one ear. We didn’t talk about it any further.

“That’s not cool,” he said, scratching his goatee. “What was it like with previous girlfriends?”

“Well, there was Suzanne — there were others, but she was the main one. But when we broke up, it was because she was dating somebody else, and I think I had a hard time trusting girls after that.”

Andy stared at me. “Wait,” he said. “This is Suzanne — crazy hot receptionist at work, Suzanne,” he said.

I nodded; it was. We’d needed a receptionist, and she’d been working a crappy job at the time, so there you go.

Andy looked for a moment like he had a lot of questions, then he said, “But things were good at first, with Cookie?” he asked.

“Things’re always good at first.” I thought about it. “Exciting, at least, with her.”

“Exciting how?”

“I had a bad crush on her for, like, a year and a half before she asked me out.” I looked at my hands. “It was messy.”

“Messy can be good.”

“She was engaged, and I was living with someone else at the time, so it was pretty messy.”

“Huh,” he said. “I can’t believe I thought you were gay when we first met.”

“I just thought she really understood me, as a designer — she’s a great designer, world-class. But….”

“Now I think you’re gay again.”

“I feel like I let her down at some point, like I let myself down.”

“How?”

“Oh, well — you know I tried to leave SJ Games a couple of times?”

“Sure,” he said. Hardly anybody worked there very long. Next to our shipping manager, who was living in an old wooden house on the back lot, Mentor had been there the longest. He’d hired most of us. Even before he left, people often talked about what their next step might be. He was generally starting the conversation. “What happened?” Andy asked.

I smiled.

“She’s always been concerned about me wasting my talent at a game company, versus doing real design in the real world. It comes up a lot — how much more money I would make in the real world. I’d be making real numbers.”

“Understood,” said Andy. “So?”

Twice in two years, I’d had good interviews with real design studios in town. Both times, Cookie had also heard, or was told, about the opening. Both times she’d interviewed as well, and gotten the job, and both times they made her tell me the news. It had never occurred to me to mention it to my friends.

“Holy shit, man,” Andy said, shaking his head, hands on tabletop. “How did you feel about that?”

“Not good,” I said, “but what are you supposed to do about it? You can see, though, how she could think I should be doing real design work—”

“Dude,” he laughed, smacking one palm flat on the table. “You are doing real design work, man! I mean: You started a magazine. You did—” He waved at the air. “—all this stuff.”

“But it’s not anything I can turn in to a design contest, you know? The American Institute of Graphic Arts doesn’t give a shit what I’m up to. It’s nothing I can be proud of.”

Andy shook his head. “I don’t know, man.”

I went on. “It’s like, there’s nothing worse than a mediocre relationship. If it’s good, if it’s bad — you know what to do. But mediocre is the worst.”

“How’s the….” Sex. He meant, How’s the sex.

“Not great. Since she got herpes last year in a way that has yet to be adequately explained, I haven’t really been up for it very much.”

Andy — who at that point in my life had told me some of the most viscerally horrible stories about women that I’ve ever heard in my life — nearly flushed his sinuses with spicy ground beef. “And you don’t have—”

“I don’t have it,” I said.

“No shit,” he said.

I nodded. No shit. “For about a year, now, it’s been unsatisfying for both of us. I feel like I’m being a jerk about it on purpose, at this point.”

“So, where do things sit between you and Cookie now?”

“They’re not good,” I said. “I feel like we’ve been together for, like, two years, and either she doesn’t have much of an interior life —”

Andy laughed. “I guarantee you, a squeaky clean little girl like that has a rich interior life in this dirty, dirty world.”

“— or she just doesn’t want to let me in.”

“Break up with her.”

I slumped into my hands. “I probably should,” I said, “but….”

“But she’s hot,” he finished for me. I nodded. “Of course she’s hot! I mean, don’t get me wrong, she is really, really, really cute. Really cute. I mean, I’d fuck her.” He looked away into the near distance. “She’s the kind of cute and smart and pretty that you just wanna, like, drop her in the mud and roll her around a bit.” He held his hands up. “And believe me, I know that girls like that are not innocent, almost never.”

“She’s not. And not like ‘No one’s innocent,’ but seriously not innocent.”

“Are we talking ‘blood on her hands’?”

I laughed. There’s a whole story there, just perfect for a sidebar.

“She’s perfectly adorable,” I said. “She’s sweet, and vulnerable—”

“This is what I’m saying,” Andy said. “She’s the perfect mix of everything you seem to find attractive in a girl.” I had to swallow hard because he was right, and I’d never before thought of it as being a problem. “She’s the cookie-cutter girl of your dreams,” he said. “She’s a Derek-shaped trap.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew, I knew what he meant. I’d always felt so strongly about me and Cookie being together, that this was how the story of my life was supposed to go, that I couldn’t see how broken we were together. I knew she wanted to get married, but if didn’t trust her. I had no perspective on how I’d forced my moral algebra to arrive not at the correct answer, but at the most alluring one. The fix was in, the numbers were wrong, and I’d been living the wrong story.

For a moment, I realized it. It cast a light shadow over me from high, high above — then before it could make too great of an impression on my conscious mind, I pushed it out of my head. I had bigger problems, I thought, and I did.

Andy was quiet. “I don’t think I care about her any more,” I eventually said.

“So break up.”

I stared at the table. Quietly, I said, “I have other shit going on.”

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Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 10

About a year earlier, Timothy Leary collaborated somehow with rock star Billy Idol on his Cyberpunk album, and the month before this event in Austin he’d starred in a tedious documentary, also called Cyberpunk. Clearly, his snappy patter would be predictable.  I’ve already searched the Internet and came up empty. If someone were to find a video of the event it might be a little bit different from what I remember, but:

I divide the event into three stages.

The show began with Timothy Leary and his wife or girlfriend, or whatever she was, coming out to thank people for attending. Then Leary raised his arms and slowly intoned a deep sentiment about computers and cyberspace and the future of human consciousness. I thought he seemed a bit shaky, impaired, though clearly the crowd was loving his cyberpunk talk. He could hardly find a more receptive audience outside of the U.S. West Coast than in hippy-speckled Austin. Then we watched a trippy video, projected larger-than-life over the stage. This was at a time when video projection was still a new thing, and the crowd seemed to go with it.

Leary came back and stumbled through an introduction of the video of his arrest. Then he played the video.

Leary came back again after that and tried to win people back to his cause. It didn’t go well.

Here’s how the AP newswire service reported his arrest. You can unpack what no one liked about the story from the newswire article, but here’s the basic blow-by-blow.

He stressed in his introduction for the video of his arrest that he was striking back against the political-correctness that had developed a stranglehold on all of our minds, put there by the authorities to control our actions. That kind of thing. So were were expecting something serious.

His videographer traveled with him to Austin, and began recording, or at least we began seeing what they were recording, as they were stepping out of the old Austin airport, the one that had been in north Austin (again, now central Austin; the place has mushroomed in 20 years). They step into the heat of our early Summer and decide that they’re going to step back inside to have a smoke, having just gotten off the plane but apparently not wanting to arrive at wherever they were to be ensconced in Austin to have a cigarette in a not-stupidly hot environment. But someone waves Leary off: smoking had been banned inside the airport.

Leary throws a bit of a fit, waving his arms and cursing about how he should be able to do whatever he wants to do. He seems seriously impaired. He marches over to the closest person in a uniform with a badge. He’s a security guard, though, not an officer of the law. Leary tears into him about the insanity of this culture of political correctness, waving an unlit cigarette.

They guy looks extremely embarrassed and basically says, “I’d really, really rather you not do that. Can’t you please step outside?” Leary refuses, and asks for trouble. The guard explains that Leary would need to find an actual police officer for that. I recall him both wincing slightly over being asked to point out where a real cop might be while also intently looking for a way to get out of the conversation.

Then a suited person appears — I remember Leary calling out from the overall baggage claim area that he wanted to speak with someone in charge — and I forget if she worked for an airline or for the airport but she has her lips pursed and her eyes locked on Leary. She is listening to exactly what he is saying. And she nods, and she leads him to an actual, uniformed police officer. After asking for and receiving an explanation of the actual law, Leary belligerates the cop, and at the climax of his rant he lights his cigarette and begins smoking. The cop gives him a momentarily resentful look — like, “And you’re really going to make me do this” — before gently handcuffing him. I forget how much more the tape showed; not enough that I remembered. Maybe, like a lot of other people, I’d stopped paying attention. They’d taken him downtown and given him a ticket, basically. He didn’t get booked; he didn’t have to put up bail. He just got a lift from the airport to downtown, then the event organizers picked him up there. And he basically got a ticket for being a dick. And then he showed us the evidence.

Six months after this event, in his book Chaos and Cyber Culture, he wrote that he was “1,000 percent against the thoughtless use of ((drugs)), whether caffeine or LSD. And drugs are not central to my life.” Knowing how publishing works, that text was likely edited and ready to go many months before that event in Austin. I think he saw the cigarette smoking issue as a human rights matter rather than a form of drug use. Maybe it would be easier to whittle down from our culture — I’m against tobacco, personally — if we called it what it is: drug use.

Some months after that event, his home state of California would ban smoking in all enclosed workplaces, including restaurants (though not bars; that would take three more years). It would take Austin ten years to gain a similar smoking ban, though it wasn’t because the people in Austin were jerks. I’m not defending Austin — we weren’t suffering a jerk drought — but it’s more because people in Texas in general and Austin in particular, against what I’ve discovered the global media would have you believe, are extremely polite. No kidding, Canadians would wish they were Texans if it weren’t for all the gun violence and the infrastructure problems and the poverty. I can’t say there’ve ever been official reports about people being niced to dead, but it wouldn’t shock me. “An armed society is a polite society,” I used to hear. People were genuinely very polite, and part of being polite is to not figuratively or literally blow smoke in people’s faces. There was, again, no drought of young jerks who would sometimes do it on purpose because it was funny, or older jerks who simply couldn’t be troubled caring about other people’s opinions of something that hardly even registered anymore to them, with their severely dulled senses of taste and smell. But for the most part smokers were circumspect and wouldn’t smoke where it wouldn’t be cool. After all, being cool was the only reason they started smoking, anyway.

The sense in the crowd, as we watched the scene play out, was confusion, at first. Did he really do that? Is this a joke? Are we seeing what we think we’re seeing?

After coming back, he looked a little confused as to why he was losing the room. He fell back onto the old standbys, like how cyberspace is the psychedelic of the future, and how we will only be free when we free ourselves, but the crowd had already begun thinning, and it became more difficult to hear his amplified voice over the people in the corridors muttering to one another — and while I’m sure he’d respect that a lot of what was going on were drug deals, he no longer seemed to be having fun.

I hoped he was at least learning something. It turns out he already knew he had cancer. Two years and two weeks later, his consciousness passed out of this world. His body was cremated and sent up into space on the same launch that took Gene Roddenberry’s mortal remains, a final trek to the stars for them both.

Cookie and I shared a glance: It was time to go. We skipped out, hand in hand, past the throngs of skate punks out front, falling down again and again trying to hop the curb on a board. Oak trees shrouded our exit into the near dark. We slid into my car — my little red convertible, my other little love.

“I think that went well,” she said.

I placed my hand on her leg. “Oh, my,” she said, and laughed. I punched the gas and we tore out of there, towards home.
Standing as we had been, sometimes on opposite sides of the incoming throng, sometimes side by side, we felt very warm, very close to one another. We were giddy, feeling like we had just done a great thing. What I’ve failed to mention about Cookie is that in addition to being a stellar graphic designer, she was unfeasibly and almost impractically beautiful, coupled with a pure shyness that was two innocent steps to the right of being coy, but just two. There was a nearly unbearable frisson that came from seeing hundreds of people respond so positively to what we had to tell so many of them individually. They responded well in part, I think, because she was unreasonably hot, but the positive sense from it was boosted ten-fold for it being clear that she was with me. I liked that.

The next couple of weeks, as a growingly great mob of people signed up for the service, were great. The month afterwards, though, went as badly as any one month has ever gone in my entire life. I didn’t believe it at the time, I won’t be surprised if you don’t.

With a full-time staff on io.com, they didn’t need me or Jeff hammering out crappy Web pages anymore — which was good, because back on the game-company side of things, we had big problems. Getting out of the hole we’d unwittingly dug ourselves into would take nothing short of actual, honest-to-God magic.

Hang on tight.

NEXT: Making Magic — part 1

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Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 9

The day of the event felt like the most exciting in months or years — no one was even sure what was going to happen; would there be music, or what? The Leary people had leaked through their many post-arrest media conversations that a thorough recording of the event had been made, and that we would have a chance to see it for ourselves at the event. Really, you couldn’t ask for more attention than that.

I remember it being an unexpectedly bright day, four of us Illuminati Online people doing product promotion in black t-shirts, arms full of flyers that would serve as most people’s first introduction to an affordable, local Internet service. Cookie and I got there around 3:30 PM to scope out how we’d do it. I also wanted to get good parking in case the fact that Austin was not just a big hippy town but also a big tech town got us a decent turn-out of tech hippies. We could not have been more right. We were mobbed.

The show was sold out — I think it was more than sold out. I think someone probably could’ve been arrested over that one. It wasn’t a huge joint: big, open concrete, rectangular room; long corridors running along two sides; high-school brown, metal, double doors; the whole place encased in brick on the outside, with a cement flatness that passed for a milling-about area in front of it all. At least, that’s how I remember it; I don’t recall the name of the venue, and I would only go there once more, a few months later, just days before Cookie broke up with me. We would go to see a popular flash-in-the-pan band, and maybe a third as many people turned up as did to see Timothy Leary detail the sudden continuance of his fight against The Man.

The central concrete area filled up fairly quickly. I could run up to the back of the crowd, before it got too thick to move without brushing up against people, but I’d still only barely have squeezed inside the open concert area itself. A T-shaped stage had been set, with the long limb of the T stretching out into the audience. A microphone stand sat mid-stage, ready.

The two main corridors bustled with people, flanked by folks huddled on either side in long, low rows. The cement staging area out front was only half as dense with people as the hallways inside, mostly with those who couldn’t afford to get in, or people waiting on other people to get in, or people who didn’t want to get it in but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what was going on, or random skateboarders.

“What was up with that girl?” Cookie asked.

“Oh,” I said, “ah, you know. Boy trouble.”

“Go on. I find it interesting. How old is she again?”

“Eighteen,” I said.

“That’s pretty young,” she said. We were twenty-four.

In the couple of hours leading up to the show, Cookie and I stood on either side of the brown double doors, smiling hugely and handing out Illuminati Online flyers just as quickly as we could, to people who were more than receptive. I began to notice that I wasn’t seeing very many of the fliers on the ground, unlike some of the other give-away cards, which was nice given that if the audience wasn’t receptive, I was going to have to look at them getting stomped on for a couple of hours. Nearly an hour before the show, the place was full and we were running out of flyers.

“It is pretty young,” I said. “And the guy she likes is nineteen, maybe twenty now, but he’s married.”

“Oh, my.”

“Yeah. And they just the other week met up at his place for lunch when, surprise, his wife decided to come home for lunch that day as well. She had to lay there, naked, in his bed —”

“In her bed,” she said, meaning the wife.

“— listening to him talk his wife into going out for lunch, and not going in the bedroom.”

“That sounds like an awkward couple of minutes.”

“Twenty. She said she thought it was something like twenty.”

She winced, her face softening toward the girl she did not know. “That’s a long time.”

Some people, after glancing at the flyer, stopped in their tracks and said, “What?!” Some people came back to ask for details. Some people who didn’t even have tickets came up to us and asked meekly if they could have a flyer, even though they weren’t going to the show.

We gave out all the flyers we had, and we’d brought a lot. I don’t remember how many. Hundreds, many hundreds, certainly. I recall there being at least four of us frantically doing the handing, but I don’t remember today who all else had been there. Me and Cookie, sure, then I want to place Jim and Patch as being there, as well. That might be unlikely, though, given how soon after he started that we had to let Patch go.

Patch had one most crucial responsibility: before leaving for the weekend, put a new backup tape in the drive. Let’s not lose data like those yahoos. But Patch kept forgetting, and one time he forgot to do it and one of the machines hiccuped and some data ended up getting lost. I saw him shortly after and I was happy to see he was fine with it.

“I didn’t put in the tape,” he said, shrugging and grinning with great exaggeration, winning my respect. He went on to do a ton of good work at a ton of great tech companies, no surprise. You own your mistakes. You learn.

The hippies and the techies and the tech-hippies were starting to get a little unruly by showtime. There was some kind of opening act, some dim music-something that people were happy to suffer through while we waited for Leary to take the stage. Murmuring in the back corridors began to grow until we could hardly hear the cue to begin clapping for the end of the opener. Once the clapping got going it only built, until the whole place was a din of hooting and calling and yelling and stamping as the lights grew dim and a few people in white walked up on stage.

I recall it going something like this.

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Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 8

Timothy Leary was only one of the personalities I brushed up against as we launched Illuminati Online. He was the most famous, for sure, even if he wasn’t the most interesting or the most long-lasting in my life.

First, no one was interested in spending tens of thousands of dollars to set up our own business simply because we figured we had to be able to do it better than a bunch of yahoos across town, only to find out that we were yahoos, too. At a local tech conference — about the ramifications of useful encryption being widely available; I designed the t-shirts — Doug had met a clever security-minded unix geek named Jim McCoy, who became Illuminati Online’s employee number one. Jim first shocked me as being only the third person, after Steve and Doug, who worked longer hours at the office than I did. He was a fixture around the office by the time we launched the ISP: trench-coated, hunched slightly in thought, hairline receding into a long, thin, pale pony tail.

Jim and Doug became fast friends, and the things they plotted to do over 2 AM sessions at Austin’s only decent all-night deli will come back into our story later on. Most importantly, one or the other or the combination of the two did turn out not to be yahoos. The service stayed up, and we moved Metaverse over to its own server — which was bad-ass at the time, but which would be mortally embarrassed by the power and the storage of the phone I had in my pocket six years ago. Looking back, though, I’m still amazed by what they were able to throw together from mail-order parts and a few heavy weeks of manual labor.

To celebrate, Mentor threw a party at his house, a block up the hill from the office. More than half of the people I’d met in the Metaverse actually lived in Austin, so it was likely to be a good crowd. I didn’t expect to see too many people whom I hadn’t already met in person, though there were a few. Like my high-school pirate meet-ups, sometimes it surprised me to realize that I’d come to know some of these people so well that I could have sworn we had already met, only to be wholly surprised by what they looked like in the real world. Not that they were especially pretty or ugly — just normal people, mostly, and normal people all look different from each other in their own unique ways.

Patch was a nineteen-year-old boy who, when grinning, looked like a twelve-year-old boy, if that. He grinned a lot, and he knew more about Unix systems than anyone else I’d met under 21. He’d dropped out of college after his first year and was looking for something to do. Weeks later, he would become employee number two, but when we first met he was sitting on a tall stool in Mentor’s living room, a girl only slightly younger than him perched on his lap, who introduced herself as Felicity, one of the only people in the Metaverse who I genuinely believed was truly female. Even though I had a girlfriend with whom I was very happy, I was as glad to discover that she was a girl as I was disappointed to find her both attached to Patch and quite young, six years younger than I was. She was starting her freshman year at the university, in computer science.

“Can you believe she and I only just met in person for the first time?” Patch asked me, when Felicity’s attention drifted for a moment to a question from someone off to one side. A decent number of people had shown up, enough that you had to speak up to be heard by those sitting next to you.

“You two really only just met?” I asked. He nodded, grinning again. She glanced back over toward me for a moment, stopping herself before she got all the way, instead turning her attention to a far corner of the ceiling.

“It’s great,” he said, squeezing her hand. She smiled, looking down and squeezing back.
“And she’s really a girl,” Patch added. And Felicity undoubtably was a girl, unreasonably thin and unfeasibly intelligent, enormous anime eyes like spotlights in reverse, drawing everything in.

“Not like Bambi,” she added.

I had seen this person called Bambi. She ran around acting like a young, female deer, like the Disney cartoon character. Hardly ever said a word, actually, just flitted about and munched grass. I’m not kidding.

Before I could turn on my “Be Cool” filter, I asked Felicity, “Bambi’s not a girl?” In the Metaverse, you could set the gender of your character, which would automatically make it then use the corresponding pronoun when referring to your character, and in the Metaverse, Bambi was “she.”

Felicity frowned. “Nope. Guy. Nerdy guy, really weird — I’d mention that I was thinking about getting into something, like databases, and a few days later I’d get a package at my door with a five-hundred-dollar database program inside. Lots of documentation.”

“You’re kidding me!” I said.

“Ah, no.” She wrinkled her face. “I keep telling him not to, but it keeps happening.”

“A five-hundred-dollar database package?” In seconds, I’d gone from being lightly jealous of Patch to being a little jealous of her. “Guys really just send you high-end software because they get a crush on you?”

“Yeah,” she said with a laugh. “But Bambi’s really been the only one with the software, so far. He’s a tiny little guy — hates being social, so I didn’t expect him to turn up here — but he’s some high-end programmer or something, so he can afford to do that kind of stuff without thinking about it.” Then suddenly I found myself more than a little envious of a small, nerdy, reclusive man who had the power to make high-end software show up at the drop of a hat.

As I was reeling, Patch asked Felicity what she was doing that weekend. They’d go on to have a brief affair before it came out that, yes, even though he was only nineteen years old he was both already married and already wishing he weren’t. This came up after his first month at work with us, when he had to go back to the college town in the middle of nowhere from whence he’d come and move his wife out to Austin. And the funny thing was that he never talked crap about her, to his credit, not one time. However, when talk of her came up, he’d lose about an inch in height, his shoulders bowing down and towards each other, as though an enormous, fleshy palm were pressing down from above and behind him. The arrival of Patch’s wife distracted Felicity from her affair with him, at least for a while.

Still, it was Felicity who would find herself in my apartment when Timothy Leary came into the picture.

Timothy Leary was a psychedelic subculture guru in the 1960s, among other things. After being jailed several times in the 1970s, he’d lost some of his revolutionary edge, though he was still more than capable of being provocative when it felt good. I’d run into him in January of 1993, in San Francisco, at a high-tech gathering, part robotics demonstration and part self-congratulatory futurist high-five-ing. (After writing this I discovered that my future wife, whom I would not meet for ten years, was at the same show.)

Leary seemed happy to have found a connection to the growing computer subculture, describing our growing sense of life in a networked world as being the closest thing to the hallucinatory drug experiences he had promoted thirty years earlier. For example, while he was giddy to tell the assembled forty or so of us his stories about palling around with William Gibson, author of *Neuromancer*, they always ended with him coming out on top.

“So it’s the middle of the night, and we don’t know anyone else in Prague — and we’d been, you know, drinking.” He winked at the audience to chuckles all around. “And there’s this car coming by, and it’s cold, and we need a lift. So Bill, he says, ‘I got this,’ and he steps out in front of the car and he waves his gangly arms in the air — he’s a tall man, you know — and he says, ‘Stop! I’m William Gibson!’ And the driver nearly runs him down, speeding off into the night.” We laugh uncomfortably. Where was this going? “So the next car that comes by, I hold my arms up and I say, ‘Stop! I’m Timothy Leary!'” He smiled. “And they stopped.”

He was a colorful character. Besides strongly promoting the idea that people should quit their jobs and take a lot of drugs — which, let’s be serious, people never seem to have failed to have come up with that idea on their own — he’d escaped prison, later being dragged back to spend several long periods in solitary confinement — between six months and two-and-a-half years, depending on whom you believe. It was longer than I’d want to spend by myself, in any case.

“Through it all,” he told the people gathered around him, “through everything that I’d done in my life up to that time, I’d always held to two things: I had to either be having fun, or learning something.”

The crowd murmured their appreciation.

“As the doors opened,” he said, “and they began walking me down the hallway to the cell where I would spend years of my life in solitary confinement, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’d better be learning something.'”

Though a lot of what he said was contrived and self-serving, that one was a powerful a life lesson. I wish it would’ve prepared me more for what was going to happen when he came to Austin, and in the weeks and months after.

The lady organizing the spoken-word event that Leary would be headlining was my roommate’s girlfriend, and coincidentally lived in the apartment directly below us. Days before his arrival, she changed the plan so that he would no longer be staying with me. Instead, the people in the apartment beside us could actually clear out for a few days so Leary and his wife or girlfriend or whatever she was could have their own clean space. We lived in a nice set of apartments in downtown Austin, very modern, and the more-empty pad would better serve as a reception area for media and other visitors. I was promised that I’d be one of the five or six core group of people who’d be in and around more often than not, and I had come home early from work to meet him.

This was back in the days when I used to have the television on all the time, as background noise if for no other reason. That day, though, I wasn’t alone. Felicity and I had talked about getting together a couple of times, so she had come by that afternoon to kill some time while we waited for Timothy Leary’s arrival. I was poking at something on the computer in the loft while she sprawled out on the sectional couch, smoking in front of the television.

“Uh, Derek,” she called up. “Is this your guy?” Even though I’d heard the TV announcer at the same time that she had, I hadn’t responded. I imagined a word-balloon stretching out of my mouth, reading, “Does not compute.” I scrambled down the black, spiral staircase, my mouth open, staring at the screen.

My girlfriend Cookie walked in. She and Felicity sized each other up, but before either of them could open their mouths, I said, “Timothy Leary was just arrested at the Austin airport. They’re holding him at the police station—” I pointed out the door, behind my girlfriend. “—about two blocks away.”

Cookie both relaxed and looked irritated at the same time. I thought she was irritated because she’d gotten dressed up for a party that now almost certainly wasn’t going to happen, and not because she’d found a beautiful, meek young girl in a dark purple crushed velvet dress lounging about in my apartment.

“Why?” Cookie asked.

“We don’t—” Felicity started. Cookie began to look at her, but then turned her gaze so strongly toward me that Felicity shut up.

“We don’t know,” I said, still completely oblivious to so many things. My roommate’s girlfriend came in.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “Did you hear?”

I pointed at the television. “A woman in Atlanta just told me through a nation-wide broadcast what happened a couple of blocks from here about an hour ago.”

Cookie wrinkled up her nose. “Okay,” she said. “That is weird.”

“It’s a disaster,” said my roommate’s girlfriend. “They arrested him!”

“What for?” I asked.

“Smoking,” she said.

“What?! He brought drugs on the flight?”

“No,” my roommate’s girlfriend said. “Just tobacco. Cigarettes.”

“Um,” I said, raising my hand. “How is that illegal?”

She winced. “It was a no-smoking area.”

“Why didn’t he just go outside?” Felicity asked.

Cookie stared at me, her lips pursed.

Felicity zipped up her backpack. “I should go,” she said.

When the cops let Leary go, he went somewhere else other than our salmon-colored, too-modern downtown apartments. We wouldn’t have an opportunity to ask what had actually happened until the next day, at the show — and boy, would we find out more than we would ever want to have known about how it had all gone down.

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 4

Table of Contents

Days later I was chatting — typing — with one of the guys, War Wager. I had maybe 40 friends in my extended series of underground circles, out of several hundred in and around the greater group at any time, but there were only maybe ten or twelve who I’d met in person. Maybe two of them knew my real name. War Wager was not one of them, though I’d met him, and I liked him.

“How was the party the other day?” I typed.

“Can you talk?” he asked. We got on the phone.

“Crazy,” he said. “It was crazy. Hulk’s sister, man, you wouldn’t believe it. You really should’ve been there.” Wendy’s brother, Mark, called himself Hulk.

“What happened? Was she horrible?”

“Kinda.”

“So…is she really big?” I thought back to the girl down the street. “Or—”

“No, no, no, not that kind of bad. Just…almost gross. She was all over X-Man, and I know you haven’t met him but he’s thin, nerdy, nothing special. I mean, I’m basically just some dude, and if it was me she was hanging on to I wouldn’t have complained, but all this guy’s got going for him—”

“What are you talking about?”

“Dude. Listen to me. She was hot, dude. Like, fifteen with a whisper, and crazy, crazy hot — she could’ve said she was nineteen and I’d have believed it. And not slutty hot, even with how she was acting. Just crazy hot. That smile, man — I ain’t seen nothing like it. Her parents keep her under lock and key, but she seems to find a way, man.”

“You must be kidding me. X-Man?!” I had no respect for the guy because of his handle. He always said it had nothing to do with The X-Men, the comic book, but they’d been putting them out for twenty years at that point, so come on. If he’d used the name of one of the characters — like Wolverine or Cyclops — then fine, it’s uncreative, though we were pirating software and not filing for trademarks. But there was never even an X-Man in The X-Men. It made him sound like an idiot.

“He’s 21, you know, right?” he said.

“Oh, shit, of course.” That was the new drinking age in Texas at the time. I didn’t like the idea of drinking, so it never figured into my equations, even though Frank had offered to buy me beer on numerous occasions, to the point of being disappointed when I didn’t take him up on it. One time, we stopped by the grocery store and I had him buy me some wine coolers. He seriously questioned whether I knew what I was doing, and I explained that I’d be seeing some girls that night and that as an older guy maybe he didn’t know that girls dug wine coolers. His eyes got wide and he nodded, slowly, understanding. I drank one that evening and tossed the rest.

“So he gets a pitcher of beer — Avatar was there, too; he’s also 21 — and we sat in the back where they show movies and stuff, and everybody gets all chatty. X-Man especially cannot stop talking about how cool his car is, so after we finish the pitcher we go check it out.” He laughed. “Dude fires up his car, and it dies right there: the radiator empties out into the parking lot, and something about a belt, I don’t know car stuff, and we had to help him push his piece of crap car around the corner and wait with him for a tow truck. Hulk was really unhappy about how his sister was saying all kinds of sexy shit to X-Man. It was nuts.” He lowered his voice. “There’s something really hot about that girl, man, I’m serious.”

I knew what it was. She was has-sex hot. I opted not to tell him that, which was fine because it turned out he knew already.

“So Hulk was unhappy, but everybody finally went home, right?”

“Mmm, yeah, yeah.”

“What’re you not telling me?”

He made a sound like a balloon being inflated near its breaking point. Then he said, “Okay. But you can’t tell anybody.” To my credit, I didn’t say a word about it to anyone for almost thirty years, until writing this right now. I’m even mixing up names and handles a bit, just in case.

“Sure,” I said. “I can keep a secret.”

“You gotta swear, okay? Okay. Yesterday, X-Man calls, asks me for a lift. I say sure. We stop on a street with a bunch of houses. He tells me to wait. I’m like, okay, shit, I should have known, but fine, I wasn’t doing anything anyway.”

He squeezes back a laugh. “I’m parked on the street; all I know is he was doing something. I’m high, I don’t care.” He paused, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have said that last part. “Twenty minutes later, X-Man is scrambling out of Hulk’s sister’s bathroom window, with Hulk chasing after his ass! I didn’t even know where Hulk lived! Dude jumps in the car and he’s like, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ So I punched it. Totally Blues Brothers. X-Man’s talking non-stop about, well, you know what he’s talking about.”

“Sure,” I said, heart crashing. “And this was just yesterday?”

“Yep. After school, before dinner.” I didn’t offer that I might have been on the phone with her, right before the Great Escape. “X-Man is in so much trouble,” he said. “Hulk is gonna kill him.”

“Hulk smash,” I agreed.

Wendy never called me again, and I hardly ever thought of her after that — maybe once or twice, here and there. When I did think of her, all I could see was dorky-assed X-Man squeezing his pitiable way out a  bathroom window, and how she was no longer some random, irredeemably hot hacker girl, she was someone’s little sister. After that, I only went out with girls who were older than me or who were older sisters, with one big, ill-fated and hard exception.

I had moved on. I was dancing.

Literally, actually. Between running the system and playing Photon — and school; I always forgot about school — I had become a dancer. I know it sounds strange, but trust me: this is the only way to explain what happened next.

 

Table of Contents

Standard
Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 2

Previously, on “Going to California”

I’d never even heard of a girl hacker. “What are you?” I sputtered. “Some kind of crasher?” I had no idea what I was saying.

“I only wanted to get your attention. I’m bored.” She explained, as she would countless times in the months to come, how she had to go straight home from school, and how she wasn’t allowed to leave her house or have anyone come over outside of a couple of girlfriends. And that was all she got to do, ever.

“Why?” I asked, more than one time.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I get in trouble. Look, I can’t talk long. My brother’s going to be back in here in a minute. He lets me use his computer when he wants me to leave him alone for a while.” She snorted. “He’s an ass.”

“Who’s your brother?” She told me his handle, the name he went by on the board. He was one of the mid-tier hackers, in the game enough that he was fun and a little dangerous — and probably the source of her crash codes — but not so in the game that he had his own board. A cool enough guy, all things considered.

“Huh,” I said. “I thought he was okay.”

“He’s not okay. I mean, I guess he is. I don’t know. Are you gonna validate my account or what?”

“I guess.” I logged into the system and checked the new user list. “You’re . . . Shadow Lord?”

“Are you gonna validate me or not?”

“What’s your real name?”

There was a decent pause. “Wendy,” she said.

“Okay, Wendy. I get a lot of people signing up who don’t call back. Are you gonna call back?”

“Yes! Yes, I’ll call back. I’ll ring the bell and interrupt you making out with models or whatever.”

I’d not by that point, at fifteen years old, ever kissed a girl in my house, much less in my bedroom.

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“My brother said you were a model or something.”

I didn’t remember telling him that, though my basic patter about how I got my computer involved the money I made from modeling. I didn’t want anyone thinking my family was rich, which we weren’t, or that I could afford to lose my computer, which I couldn’t. It was a gift of fate, and I didn’t want to set myself up as a target for anybody.

“I do modeling,” I said. Which was true, though I hadn’t had a real job in months. That had been a Diet Dr. Pepper commercial. It sucked.

“How are you a model?” she asked. I started telling her the story, and she interrupted. “I believe you, I believe you. I gotta go.”

“Sure,” I said.

She said, “You really are a cool guy, Patrick.”

But I wasn’t. I mean, I knew I was cool to myself. I often took time after lunch to hack the phone outside my high school’s cafeteria so I could connect with other computer-obsessives in other area codes — even if I was only popping in and out, just to say hello to people, anything to stay far enough in the loop to make it more likely that once a decent new underground board came up I’d be likely to hear about it, or even better to get an account on it early on before it got shut down. Five minutes at a time, about the most I’d let myself stay on an open conference line when I was making a long-distance call without paying for it, I got a trickle of information that sometimes, occasionally, in rare bursts, let me do things that were about as cool as you got, as a teenager growing up in suburban Texas in the later half of the Twentieth Century.

The other kids at school, though, they didn’t know that I was cool, and I didn’t help my case. Even as late as my senior year in high school, I remember wrangling to volunteer alongside a girl on whom I’d developed a serious crush. I don’t remember where we volunteered — it was off-campus somewhere, which was exciting.

Now this girl, she was drippingly cool. Our first day, we were told to sit in a room for half-an-hour and wait for someone to tell us what to do. I was thrilled. I got her talking about spring break, which we’d all just come back from. She and some friends had ended up at Padre Island, aka party central.

“Oh,” she said, “and there was this guy, in these shorts — you know those late-‘70s jogging shorts, white with the blue piping or whatever?”

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Sure, I got a pair like that.” Her expression fell visibly. “For sleeping in,” I quickly added, which was true. “Just, you know, not for going out in or anything.”

“He, uh, he was in a phone booth, trying to make a call, and he had on these shorts.” She looked me up and down, suddenly and visibly off-put. “They look terrible.”

“I know. That’s why—”

“We made fun of that guy for days.” She crinkled her nose, as if she were about to sneeze. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” she said, her finger pointing down where shorts would be if I’d been wearing them, “about that.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said, and she turned her attention to a stack of magazines in the waiting room. There was four-month-old news to catch up on. She had no idea how cool I was, and I had no idea how to tell her.

Wendy, though, she thought I was cool. I fed her little hacker tricks that her brother didn’t know. She said it pissed him off, which — even though I thought he was an okay guy — I admit I found pretty funny. And there were other things, too. Like, I never asked her how old she was. Instead, I asked her how old her brother was.

“Fifteen,” she said, “almost sixteen.” So just a few months older than me. “And he’s my big brother, but not by much. I’m fourteen. You never asked, which means you either don’t care, or it doesn’t matter, or you really badly wanted to know but you didn’t want to come right out and ask because you knew I’d think you were uncool.”

“I’m fifteen,” I said.

“Well, la-dee-dah.”

“I’ve got a little sister, but she’s four years younger than I am.”

“So, am I just a little sister?”

“No,” I blurted. “You’re a really cool girl, did you know that?”

“We should hang out,” was what she said. It was both what I wanted to hear and what I was afraid of hearing. I was afraid that when we met I’d find her unattractive. You see, a few months earlier some people had moved into a house down the street, and I’d heard there was a girl my age in the family. I probably dropped by five times over the course of a month, and never got to meet her. All I knew was her name was Chris. I knew an unfeasibly hot girl named Chris, so because I was stupid and shallow I kept dropping by, because who knows? When we finally met, she turned out to be horrible — not because she was very overweight, which she was, or because she had terrible skin and hair and even smelled a little bit, which she did, but because most of the time I spent trying to talk to her she just sat there, swollen arms pulled tightly to her body, welling up with hate for her very existence. I spent maybe ten minutes trying to get her to say something interesting then I left. I never dropped by again. They moved away less than a year later.

All this to say that I liked the idea of an impressively cute-sounding crash girl who liked to call me, which happened about once a week in a narrow window of time after school, while her brother was busy with something else, but before her parents got home — yet I didn’t want my illusions shattered.

“That sounds cool,” I said, “but what about the no-people-over thing?”

“Well,” she said, “that is a problem. Gotta go.” It was common for her to hang up suddenly — often just as things were getting interesting. A few weeks later, she asked me if I’d ever had phone sex.

“No,” I said, though I was anxious to know more.

“It’s when you take the phone away from your ear,” she said, “and you put it up your butt.” She laughed. “And then you sorta . . . spin it around.” She hung up.

Okay, I thought, she’s not actually cool. That’s actually weird. Oh man, I thought — what if she’s twelve or something? I thought about my own sister. I thought I was only talking to a girl who was one year younger than me, but I was very protective of my sister, and any closer to her age was too close for comfort. I got unnerved about Wendy several times, but she’d always call back, and I only wanted to talk to her more.

One time, I didn’t hear from her for some months. Then she called. I knew it was her because we had this signal worked out: she’d call and let it ring one time, then she’d hang up, then she’d call back. So if I heard the phone ring once and then nothing, if it rang again seconds later I’d pick it up before the computer answered.

“What are doing?” I asked.

“Just waiting for my friend, Jenny. She’s coming over, so Mark let me use the phone.” That was her brother.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Mostly with Jenny, though I got into a little trouble that way.”

“How’s that?”

Jenny had met a couple of guys out somewhere — older guys, nineteen or twenty — and late one night the three of them talked her into sneaking out of her house. They’d walked, in the night, two blocks over to explore some unfinished North Arlington homes in the new subdivision under construction. That told me where she lived, within about four blocks. They got separated from each other, she and Jenny, and she and one of the guys got caught by cops while Jenny and the other guy escaped somehow.

“Why’d you get separated?” I asked.

“Well,” she said quietly, “you know, sometimes you don’t always want to fool around with your best friend right there. Sometimes you want a little privacy, but I guess the cops don’t understand that when they come at you, all flashlights and questions and ‘Do your parents know where you are’ and everything.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. And that was basically our relationship. I let her talk, and I listened, and I gave her advice, and she told me I was cool. A lot of times, she let me talk about my life, too. Talking to her was the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes we were typing but most of the time I actually spoke to her, through a handset. When I felt the stutter coming on, I’d start singing David Bowie songs or whatever came to mind.

A few months later, that summer, she idly asked me what I was doing.

“Getting ready to go to an audition,” I told her, which was true. I’d been asked to show up at a cattle call for a Frito-Lay print ad. Nothing magical, but $175 still sounded like a lot of money to me. “Then tomorrow I’m going to Wet ’n Wild with a friend of mine.”

“Really? Hey, no kidding: my friend Jenny is going to Wet ’n Wild tomorrow.” It was the local water park, with slides and an enormous wave pool and all that crap. “We should meet up some time, you and me. But I think I’d like her to meet you first. Tell you what: do you know when you’re going to be there?”

We arranged that I’d meet Jenny a little after 3 PM, in the fake creek that circled most of the park, around its northwest entrance. I remember actively pushing the thought of her out of my mind as my mom drove me to the audition — really more of a “walk in here and let us take a look at you” sort of call. Then the next day I went to the water park, and I kept my eye on the time. It was a nightmarishly hot day, and all I could do was think about making it to the mid-afternoon. About a quarter ’till three, I ditched my friend for a bit and began circumnavigating the creek, timing it to arrive at the right position at nearly the right time.

I’d spent many, many years around strikingly pretty girls, models and dancers and actresses. I always had a lot of female friends because I found them super-easy to talk to, and because if they didn’t hit me over the head with a baseball bat to tell me that they liked me then I presumed they were so far out of my league that I wasn’t losing anything simply by being friendly. It also meant that I had a decently high bar for what made a beautiful girl, in no small part because I knew that the head of a beautiful girl had no reason to hold a mind that was any more secure or interesting than that of a less-beautiful girl.

Jenny and I recognized each other immediately. She was an irredeemably gorgeous blond in a mostly white bikini, thin stripes of pink and blue shining through. She had a look about her that held me in place like a butterfly pinned to velvet. It wasn’t just that she was hot, which she was. She was, I realized by the way she looked me up and down, very familiar with sex. She was has-sex hot.

And as a fifteen-year-old, nearly sixteen, has-sex hot was the hottest kind of hot there was. She was all the more hot for so obviously liking what she saw in me.

“Okay,” she said, smiling. “I think we can work with this. I’ll let Wendy know. You’ll hear from us.”

I liked the way she said that. I said something like, “Sure,” and strode out of the creek, away from her, knowing when my interview was over, not wanting to flub any improvised lines.

An hour or so later, when my mom picked us up from the park, she was delighted.

“You got the job!” she said, then in the rear-view mirror I could see her face fall. “Oh, dear, I think you might have gotten a little sunburned.”

“Really?” I said, touching my shoulders. They didn’t look that bad. I’d lived in Texas more than ten years, and I’d almost never had a problem.

“Your face,” she said. I touched my nose, and suddenly it was on fire. We called my agent, who stayed very calm but explained that after an audition, before finding out whether or not I got the part, the plan was supposed to be to lay low and not to do anything stupid. They passed the news along to the crew, who told me to show up anyway.

I did. It was a disaster.

“We’d heard you were sunburned,” said the director, taking a step back and tilting his head to one side. “We didn’t know you were like this.” The skin was bubbling up off my cheeks and my nose. Skin had begun peeling off my back in long strips earlier that morning. I was a mess.

“Tell you what,” he said, pointing behind me at the set. We were in a Dallas high school classroom, empty for the summer session. There were maybe eight kids, all intended to depict a different archetype of school life in a kind of pop-culture tableau. “You were gonna be one of the popular kids, but tell you what: let’s see if the make-up people can work with what you’ve got. How about you’ll be the nerdy kid in the back, looking up from a beaker that’s exploded into your face?” He motioned over a make-up lady, and she got to work.

“Ooch,” she said, daubing foundation on with a sponge. “I hope this doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m fine,” I said, wincing.

“So you’re the nerd then?” she asked.

I nodded. I knew my part well. It was the last call I ever got, and the end of my modeling career.

I didn’t hear from Wendy the next day, or the day after that. I called the number I had for her, and it was disconnected. I spent the rest of the summer feeling hollow inside. She hadn’t crashed my board — she’d crashed me.

Then a few months later the phone rang one time, paused, then it rang again. Before my computer could pick up, I answered it.

Standard
Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 3

Table of Contents

“Hey, Patrick,” she said.

“Hey.”

“It’s been a while,” she said. I said nothing.

“Jen really enjoyed meeting you,” she added.

“Yeah,” I said, “same here. She seemed cool.”

In a series of short bursts, each one word long, she said, “Jen . . . has . . . been . . . bugging . . . me . . . to . . . call . . . you. So I am. She thinks we should get together some time.”

“What do you think?”

“I think she needs to keep her hands to herself.”

Okay.

“What have you been doing?” she asked.

“Busy,” I said. “I’ve been pretty busy.”

And unlike most of the rest of the times in my life when I would say that to a girl who I’d been desperate to hear from but who had failed to call me, I was sadly telling the truth.

I’d filled most of my free time with hour-long drives to the far side of Dallas, where some guy with a couple of Apple II computers and a bunch of little radios and a blackened warehouse appropriately fog-lit and a really good idea for making money from all of that stuff put together in exactly the right way was making a total crap-ton of money.

It was called Photon. You probably know it today, if you know it at all, as Laser Tag — but Photon was the first, as far as I know. You have two teams, each team has a base, you get points for shooting the enemy’s base and for shooting enemies. When you get shot, your gun goes dead for something like five seconds. That’s it. You have a helmet and a chest-plate with sensors, and a gun, and a gigantic load of batteries strapped around your waist. Also, it was crazy air-conditioned in there, and this was Texas.

You could not have designed a better trap for my spare attention. I started going there as often as I could. I had to borrow my mom’s mini-van — I think I already mentioned being on the near-side of the cool-kid bell curve — and I did so, regularly. Even the much older boys down the street, who’d originally introduced me to the world of geekery, were excited to hitch a ride with me to run around shooting at live bad-guys in a science-fiction set.

This will be important next time; it’s simply too much to get into this time.

My board had been expanding. I got a great deal on a hard drive from Frank, my first and best grown-up friend in that extended social circle; he brought his wife over and she marveled at me and my room, “It’s like, left-brain and right-brain, all together.” That gave me a colossal 15 megabytes online, all the time. My dad called it the Battlestar Galactica, it was so loud.

The thrum of life in my bedroom was fine. It was the code that was driving me nuts. The game kept crashing, so I had to pull features back until I got them working together again. I couldn’t imagine today a more insane way to develop software. Here’s what I did: code like a crazy person, reworking small feature by small feature. I could never have anything in the code be totally broken for very long, because the moment the phone would start ringing I would type RUN BBS and let someone explore the system in whatever state I’d left it in. The maniacally twisted part — or the lovely and delicious part, if you’re a modern user-experience designer with few scruples — was that I would then watch people interact with the game, taking notes so that I could make things easier next time, or at least less broken.

Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would still be doing very much the same thing, only larger. Also, I exited my teenage years having grown a pair of scruples, though that was later.

And there was more competition in town. Specifically, also over in Dallas, there was a totally new kind of system. Get this: you call a number, and you get switched between one of six or seven lines, all of which ran into a single computer. The computer had six or seven modems running, jacked into six or seven phone lines — meaning that six or seven people could all be online, on the same system, at the same time.

There was nothing to do there but to chat with the other people. That was novelty enough, believe me, even if it seemed like a low ambition for my taste.

After declining to help Wendy sneak out her window late at night, not even considering what I’d have to say to get my parents to let me take the car out at a late enough hour that her parents would be asleep, we talked on the phone a few more times. I once asked her about Jen, and she said she’d hang up if I mentioned her again. But then the next time crash girl called, she brought Jen up herself, sort of.

“I was thinking we should meet,” she said.

“Yeah, we talked about that.”

“There’s this thing. My brother’s doing it. I think you should come.”

“What thing? Where?”

“Pfft. Just this thing. He and a bunch of people — War Wager, X-Man, and like three other guys — are gonna meet at Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

“Are you kidding me?” I was actually a little hurt. I mean, I knew all those guys. I hadn’t met a lot of them in person, but that was uncool.

“They don’t invite you to those things because they’re afraid you’d think they were uncool.”

“Well it is kinda uncool for them to—”

“I told Mark I was inviting you, and he was like, ‘Sure.’ And…there’s this friend of mine, been saying we oughta meet. So you’d better come. You can come, right?”

Could and would but did not. It was Halloween, and of all early evenings, my sister had a rehearsal or a recital or some such business that an older high-school kid did not care about in the absolute least, and my mom needed the car. We actually passed the Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza and video-game parlor on the way there and on the way back. But mom didn’t want to be bothered with dropping me off and picking me up and it was a school night and she’d had a hard day and damn it, damn it, damn it.

I told myself: If the streetlight turns red at the intersection, I am going for it, I am running. The light was green, smooth sailing through the intersection. It was red on the way back, so I had a full minute to stare at the illuminated pizza and video-game parlor logo, seeming only slightly diminished beside the red, glowing K-Mart with which it shared a strip-mall storefront.

It had been months since I’d stolen long-distance. I’d been trying to stay in the lighter-side of the computer underground gray area, but that night I took the board down and kept the line busy calling a bunch of pirate boards in Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, downloading the most terrible information I could touch. Car hot-wiring instructions. Explosives recipes. Most of it was bullshit, but I kept going. I was angry at no one in particular. I was angry with everyone. All this to say I was sixteen.

She called the next day, after school. I explained what happened in a way that made me sound less like the twelve-year-old I felt like I’d been reduced to — and when you’re sixteen, in case you’ve forgotten, the difference between you and a twelve-year-old is not four years, it’s a lifetime. She was sympathetic enough.

“That’s awful. Aw, that really sucks. I mean, I missed seeing you.”

“How was it?”

“Oh, you know, no good. Bunch of uncool guys and some pizza, right? X-Man was there, though, so it wasn’t too bad. I mean, he’s a total loser. He’s like twenty-one — did you know that? twenty-one? I mean, wow! — and he was all excited about showing us his totally cool car. Ha. It was so cool that when he started it to give us a lift, it broke down and died right there, totally died. The radiator fell out or something right there. Shitty piece of shit.”

“Wow. That sucks.”

“Oh, no — it was funny. He’s a jerk, that guy. A real asshole.” She made a kind of purring noise, took a deep breath, and then made no sound whatsoever.

Finally, I said, “What?”

“Gotta go,” she said.

I glared at the handset, the one I’d fallen in love with at four years old when we’d first moved in, so delighted by all the tones its little buttons made. Even better, I remembered when a phone repairman had come to the green phone company switch box in our backyard and let me look at the tool he used. It looked like a kind of funky phone, but it had an extra row of buttons along the outside, which did different special things to the phone system. I’d always wanted one of those set so badly. But right then, I stared out along the far edge of the touch-tone pad, begging for a button that would end my misery.

My misery would only last another couple of days longer, and it would end with a phone call.

 

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?”

Previously, on “Going to California”

Before I can begin to explain my life in California, there’s something else you need to know.

The summer between high school and college, after I’d turned off my board, I went to one last pirate meet-up. We would pick a day, some combination of three or four or sometimes five of us would get together at someone’s house to copy the hell out of whatever software other people had and talk about all the things we’d learned about they types of systems we’d variously been able to access.

I never one time saw anyone exchanging credit cards. I saw files discussing the security features of credit cards, but that was only interesting and not incriminatory. The only people in that extended series of circles who I ever heard of committing credit card fraud ended up getting something like what they probably deserved.

But we would copy files, and get in line to be next to copy something, and show the new kid that you could cut a notch along the plastic edge on the other side of the disk and then you can flip it over and write onto its backside. A fun few seconds with a hole punch and you’ve doubled your storage!

And before I went off to college, I figured I’d better make one last round. In a quieter moment, when the conversation had died down and the background whirring of disks being read and written had drifted into the foreground, one guy — we didn’t know each others’ real names, no joke — said, “I been meaning to ask you guys something. Why do you think we do this?”

“Because it’s cool,” I said.

He smiled. The other guy did, too. “It is cool,” he said, nodding. We were actually cool. It’s just that almost no one else knew it.

The lie that the movie War Games sold me was that if I dove deep, deep into what you could do with a computer, an alarmingly attractive girl would come along and she would think that this whole thing was really cool, and she would want to know more about it.

And okay, let’s be honest, you would show her how you’d been able to access the school’s computers and change her grade to an A in some class. She would be horrified, begging you to change it back. Certainly the girl’s existence was basically a lie, I can tell you from my first couple of years of diving way, way further into the computer than I probably should have, and if there were a girl there she would much more likely be shaking your chair and directing you to add a couple of classes to her record that she had never even taken, as long as you were at it, but change it all back to how it had been after a couple of weeks, once the college transcripts go out. Because this would have to be our secret.

There are things you can do that will crash systems. We learned this early on. It’s not pretty, and it’s not that useful unless you’re a very malicious person, but some people delight simply in being able to do it. It’s very rarely helpful in any way. But still people try, for a lot of reasons. One reason, of course, is that some systems, if you can crash them in a very specific way, you can gain some control over them. Sometimes you can gain complete control of them.

Back when I was running my board, I was never surprised when I saw someone trying to crash it. With some systems, it could be something as dumb as crashing if a user hit too many keys at the main menu, or typed some specific pattern of characters.

Most of the time I kept my computer screen off. The current session was being echoed to my monitor, and I didn’t need to see people doing things like writing email. But people could page me, and if I was around I’d type to them.

One time, one mid-afternoon, I got a long series of page requests, like ten or fifteen, startling me on my bed where I would have been reading over something like the Arduin Grimoire, a role-playing game book, for the eleven-thousandth time. I turned on my monitor. Looking at the user’s recent history, and what they were typing while I watched, it looked like someone was trying to crash my board. Line after line, someone was trying an impressively extensive list of all the crash-inducing command combinations I’d ever come across.

And now the user was pinging me. Glancing at the top couple of lines of the screen — which always reported the name of the currently logged-in user and some interesting stats about the system at large as well as the current user — I could see that it wasn’t a verified user. I asked that in order to sign up, people create an account and feel free to look around. If they actually wanted to be a user, leave me your phone number and I’ll call you back to verify that you’re a real human being. Or something. I’m not sure what I was thinking, I’m both afraid and not surprised.

So someone who’d never called in before was trying every kill command they could think of — and they had a perfectly respectible list to work with — and then tried a few more for good measure after quick-firing a bunch of chat requests at me. I didn’t give a shit about the crash commands. They could try whatever the hell they wanted to try and they would never crash my board. I was confident because I constantly beat the hell out of it, and every time I heard of a new exploit somewhere else I would check my code for the same sort of mistake. I thought it was kinda pathetic that someone would try so many dumb things. Maybe a twelve-year-old, or something.

Then the feed from the other end went silent. The cursor blinked a number of times in front of the prompt, and then the person on the other end of the line rapidly typed out, “I KNOW YOURE WATCHING”.

That stopped me.

“I KNOW YOU ARE,” it said.

“TALK,” it said.

I dropped into chat mode.

“About what?” I typed.

“CALLING BACK. PICK UP.” Then the line went dead.

Holy crap, I thought. The phone started ringing, and I pulled the receiver off the hook just after the first ring finished washing over my body, before the computer picked up.

“Hello?” I said. “This is Patrick.”

“Hey,” she said. “Hello — oh, wow. I’m really glad you picked up. This is totally great.”

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