Saturday, August 21, 2010

Proudly Geek

Yesterday, two computer science majors were walking across the university campus when one said, "Where did you get such a great bike?"

The other computer geek replied, "Well, I was walking along yesterday, minding my own business, when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike, threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, "Take what you want."

The first geek nodded approvingly and said, "Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn't have fit you anyway."

Alright, I’m lying; no woman has ever said anything like that to a computer geek. I can tell this joke because I’m a computer geek, too. Besides teaching history, I still work with computers and before I went to work at the university, I ran computer stores for a living.

I have lost track of one of the strangest men I have ever known, and I would really like to know what happened to him. Almost 30 years ago, I had a computer store just off the beach in Galveston, Texas. This is a great place to have a store for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the constant traffic roller skating or walking back and forth along the seawall.

One of my favorite customers was Mike R., who was the perfect example of a computer geek. Mike was about as wide as he was tall, and maybe the most slovenly person I have ever met until I raised a couple of teenage boys. He wore the same three piece suit every day and chain smoked cigarettes. I vividly remember Mike digging around in the pockets of his suit until he finally produced a wrinkled and wadded ball that vaguely resembled a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. Mike would pound the pack flat on a table and pull out a cigarette about as twisted and crooked as a politician’s conscience.

Mike, of course, was usually covered with ashes, flakes of tobacco and the remains of his last several meals, but he was immaculate compared to his car. I cannot remember what make of car it was but I do know it was a four door and the back window was missing. The entire back seat was filled level with trash, mainly empty cigarette packs, Styrofoam boxes from McDonald’s and Twinky wrappers. As Mike drove down the street, some of the trash freely flowed out the back window.

Okay, Mike was never featured in GQ magazine, but in the world of computers he was a Greek God. The only man I have ever known who could just sit down and write Z-80 assembly code as simply as an ordinary mortal could produce a grocery list. Mike was a genius, and regularly, and without cost, solved some of our most complex computer problems.

One summer day, Mike was in the store playing with the new Fortune 32:16 Unix Computer we had on display while about a half dozen geeks-in-training were comparing the Atari 400 to the Commodore Pet. Most computer stores back then were exclusively male clubhouses and mine was no exception, at least until the door opened and an extraordinarily attractive young woman came in. She was tall, made even taller by her roller skates, and was wearing what I think may have been a self-knitted bikini.

“Can one of you help me with my camera?” she asked. She was holding a camera, and no, it was not a digital camera. Remember, this is almost 30 years ago.

“Sure.” Mike said as he walked over. Actually, as I remember it, he was the only one of who answered her. Or moved. The rest of us watched, intently, but no one else did anything constructive for the next 10 minutes as Mike removed the batteries, cleaned the oxidized contacts, and reinserted the batteries. Now that the camera worked again, the young lady thanked him and skated out the door and down the boardwalk.

I walked over to Mike and said, “Wow, Mike, you don’t see something like that every day.”

“No,” he answered. “That was a neat camera.”

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