…the 21st of September?
Well, it wasn’t the 21st as such, but this week marks ten years since I moved to Arlington and started at NGS. In retrospect, I can’t believe that it’s only been ten. We were still based on the 4th floor of the M street building, I was in one of those weird old wood-veneer cubes with a PowerMac 7100 and a Gateway P5-90 as my work machines, and my principle down-time-at-work fixation was getting IMAP access to my mail. There was a token ring card in my machine – in both of them, as we had 16Mb token ring and 10 Mb Ethernet. And access to the Internet was a function of what floor you were on – and if you weren’t on the right floor, you had to rig up to dial out through a modem pool with a commercial ISP. I still had a ridiculous amount of debt, to the point where I remember calling in sick one day to save the Metro fare and eat lunch at home instead of at the caf. I would get up in the morning, walk out the front door, walk right down Glebe Road, through the mall and into the train. Breakfast was usually an ice-cream sandwich from the vending machine, lunch was eaten with the gang, the embryonic nucleus of what would become the best frinds I ever had. At night, I’d come home, hop in the car, and drive all the way to Fair Oaks mall for tobacco so I could come home, smoke, and watch Monday Night Football starting at 9 PM. (seriously! Nine o’clock! How did I ever think that was normal? 8, sure, and I know 6 is weird too, but NINE PM? God, I was so young and crazy…) And I watched it on a TV that sat on the living room floor, next to my computer set up on an empty pizza box. I had no furniture. I was sleeping on an inflatable mattress in the living room, all my clothing in a heap in the otherwise-empty bedroom. I still had to wear a shirt and tie four days a week with nice Dockers; we wouldn’t revert to 5-day casual until the summer of 1998. I didn’t get a single stick of furniture until my parents came to visit in mid-October, so for the first month, that’s how I lived – basically high-tech homeless.
I remember the drive. Nothing can ever compare to middle Tennessee in autumn, but the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Breezewood to the Ohio line is pretty breathtaking itself. Too, it’s important to remember that at this point, aside from family vacations, I’d been outside the South on my own maybe twice in my life. When I drove to Cincy for the day in May of ’97, crossing the Ohio river felt like landing on Mars. Driving to Boston and back that summer was like leaving the galaxy. And now here I was, living in Washington DC on weekdays and practically commuting to Cleveland on weekends. I’d pass the exit for Beaver Falls, and it’s all I could do not to cross myself and say “St. Namath pray for us.” I was around things I’d never seen in my life – IKEA, toll roads, CVS (this was before they bought Revco, which had bought Big B), Safeway and Giant, a real honest-to-god subway system. I was a commuter. I was a full-time employee. For the first time since I was 5, there was no such thing as homework or reading assignments or syllabi – I was a real live 40-hour wage slave. That was the first fall since Gerald Ford was President that September didn’t equal back-to-school.
We didn’t have blogs. We didn’t have Google. IM outside AOL was in its infancy and the first webmail rivals to Hotmail (which was still not Microsoft property, I don’t think) were just cropping up. Our online community was a mailing list and a CLI-based MUD. AAPL was still trading under $20 a share and the new hotness in computing was Windows NT4, which was supposed to marry NT 3.51 technology to the Win95 interface and take over the universe. People still thought that “network computing” was a viable future, and those who didn’t thought it would be done in by zero-conf NT workstations. Apple hadn’t even shipped the G3 yet. Digital cellphones were an expensive toy and unless you were one of those crazy people who took a flyer on Sprint Spectrum in DC or Powertel in Birmingham, you weren’t switching between multiple phones without calling the carrier. I don’t even think they did SMS at the time. I had a Motorola Piper on Cellular One and got disconnected for non-payment. By way of history, it was only the fourth phone I’d ever bought. I’d gone through two carriers in Nashville, and when I left Vanderbilt, I had to get a new phone because the old one didn’t work in Birmingham, and then I had to get another one in Arlington that would work *there*. I can’t believe we ever had to pay long distance or roaming.
Of course, the notion of a dot-com bubble was kind of alien – sure, Netscape and Amazon and a few others had blown up like crazy, but the idea of a “pure Internet play” and the big IPO cash-out hadn’t taken over the world just yet. But we were starting to get the idea…although it would be two years before it occurred to me that it might be worth trying, and five more before I rolled the dice. At the time, I was just grateful to be alive and have a job, even if it was paying me half what I’m making now. It didn’t take long to see that something was amiss at the job, and I fretted to my folks about it, and my dad gave me the best advice he had, probably his whole philosophy of life in a nutshell: “Just do the best you can and don’t be a horse’s ass.”
Oh yeah, and Dad was still alive.
I’ve had a lot of change in September before, and I’m sure I will again, but nothing compared to that fall. I don’t know if I could do it again, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to try…