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Lightning Strikes

This is an autobiographical account of a miraculous incident that got me my first job in the field of Information Technology, set in Dallas, 1996. It’s part of a journal I call the Brief History of Economic Me.

The modem dials each number in quick succession, opening a phone dialog of high-pitched squeals and the alternating tones of a sad slot machine, which I have come to believe is what computers sound like when they talk to each other. This mysterious custom of the digital world should conclude with a blast of comforting static, which I like to imagine as a torrent of twenty-eight thousand bytes (yes, bytes) of data surging through the phone line, except this time there’s no static. The screech-dee-dong handshake continues.

I wait a minute, hit cancel and retry. Same result.

The next obvious move is a reboot. My desktop beast trudges through its slothful routine of beeps, floppy disk drive honk, and internal whirling while cryptic command-line hieroglyphics scroll down the screen.

Another try. Still no connection. I thrust myself out of the chair and pace the flattened carpet of my bedroom, cursing, fists clenched.

Scruffy the arthritic mutt wakes from his nap under the desk, gives me one worried look, and waddles out the door. He can’t comprehend the depths of my frustration. This is no mere computer problem; it’s a mockery of my life.

My dad stops at the door holding a folded Auto Trader mag and a mega-cup of Diet Coke, half-awake after a Saturday afternoon nap. “Everything alright?”

“Computer stuff,” I grumble above the continuing screech-dee-dong, in the manner of a teenager shooing a parent away from his room, except I’m twenty-six.

Two years have passed since my encounter with The Man in the Gray Suit and his words still haunt me: get a job, any job. Make money. But merely making money isn’t good enough. Work needs to be interesting, too. Otherwise what was the point? My temp job at the credit card company is the exact opposite of interesting, but it pays the bills. It’s a life puzzle as perplexing as the guts of the computer here in my room.

I imagine computer repair as the antithesis of office temp jobs: something new, interesting and lucrative. Something that keeps me separate from soulless suits. I also imagine myself as someone who knows about computers, just like I imagine how a modem works and what it sounds like when computers talk. Only problem is there’s a light-year of space between what I imagine and reality, which is made all the more clear by computer meltdowns like this.

Gray Suit promised lightning would strike. All it takes is focus, he said. On any given day my focus is blown on computer games and other distractions to drown out the drudgery of time at the office, but I’m ready to focus now. I want to fix my life, which means fixing this computer. There is no walking away. If I get my foot in the door somewhere I can fake it to make it. My bolt from the blue is long overdue.

My first idea is to find the config.sys boot file. I open it and stare at the code like a dog who has stumbled upon an open algebra text and make some changes. But then I’m spooked by memories of my last self-inflicted disaster and close the file unsaved.

Next I shut down the computer, remove the cover from the PC case and take a look under the hood, as if it’s the ‘64 Olds I drove in high school, broken down on the side of the road. I wouldn’t recognize the modem if the phone cord wasn’t plugged into the back panel. There is dust, which I do my best to clean up, knowing it won’t help.

I remind myself there’s no shame in calling for help. Learning something new would be a small victory, but knowledge is hard to come by these days. On the odd chance someone is willing to help me, they’re looking to get me off the phone fast, not to teach a man to fish. I unplug the modem phone cord from the wall-jack and plug the phone back in, considering my options.

Keith and Dave are the computer arch-mages among my group of friends; but if I ask too many questions they’ll know I’m trying to learn. This exceeds my humility threshold right now. I’m the broke college grad who studied philosophy, and they’re making big money with no college degree.

Instead I call the local computer shop with the intent of hustling some free advice from a random geek, just a hint to point me in the right direction. But it’s soon apparent the once-humble shop has undergone a corporate metamorphosis, meaning they now charge for advice. The technician transfers me to call center support.

The inane cheerfulness of the phone tree voice amplifies the stress in my nerves. No, I do not have a receipt and no I cannot remember where I purchased the modem or when. My only option is paid support over the phone. This feels like total defeat and I’m thinking the awkwardness of calling Keith or Dave might be a better choice.

My finger is on the button to hang up when an actual woman comes on the line to take my credit card information. She has a thick Spanish accent, telling me the call has gone straight to Guatemala, and from this alone I sense the whole thing – the computer problem, my life, everything – is moving in the exact opposite direction I want it to go.

I give Maria my payment info anyway, with the same resignation I’d have if she was border patrol asking for my passport, and I wait on hold with the feel-good music again, which succeeds in having the reverse effect on my mood. I realize the phone I’m using is plugged into the wall-jack the modem used, making it impossible to troubleshoot the problem at hand.

At that moment an eloquent technician comes on the line and explains the pricing and terms with a faux-British accent, sounding like a worker at a Renaissance festival explaining the rules of an axe-throwing game of skill. Some hope returns. This is no third-world call center. Even better, I know this guy. “Victor?”

“Dex?” He uses my old call sign, not heard since my days of fantasy gaming and laser tag.

I go with it, and explain my problem with haste.

Victor cuts in, tells me to meet him after his shift ends at eleven, in the Chili’s parking lot across the street from the call center, so I don’t have to pay. Bring the computer he says. He’ll have a look.

Several hours later Victor concludes: “Could be the modem was zapped during last night’s electrical storm.”

Lightning. I should have thought of that.

Then he asks: “You got a resume? We’re hiring.” It’s a random opportunity, a bolt from the blue.