Leaked excerpt from another book in progress…
In the Beginning Was the Hack
A step van made its way north west on the Atlantic City Expressway, a ribbon of asphalt that crawled each summer with station wagons crammed with tourists from Philly to the beach. In July there were families with dogs and baroque collections of beach chairs and inflatable rafts. I see clusters of bikers, cruising chopped Harleys and Triumphs, a nomad cloud of marijuana smoke and whiskey vapors, leathered up in the 90 degree asphalt amplified heat, and day tourists on the bus with their white bread sandwich lunch in a shoebox, wearing black socks and sandals under long khakis they would roll up for a stroll along the foamed edge of a gray beach.
But by now it was late October, and the leaves had begun to curl and crisp, bending towards gold and red. The back of the van is crammed floor to ceiling with punched cards. The information content of those cards could now be carried on a CD or a flash drive or sent as an email attachment, avoiding the trip altogether. But in 1963 a computer program to run a simple mailing list – a leading edge technology at the time, pioneered by my father – took up the entire back of a van traveling northwest toward Philadelphia. The cards were headed to a General Electric facility to be fed into a computer so that a catalog featuring fake vomit, vibrators and laughing bags (as well as an early version of electric toilet paper that featured a corn cob with a plug) could be individually labeled and mailed to the names on the list. Periodically, the cards would jam, and my father would open the front of the feeder, retrieve the offending card, utter expletives gathered from his years with the Marine Corps, smooth it out, and start the process again.
The catalogs anticipated the Internet in the sense that it was where ordinary people could get difficult to find items that would “astound your friends.” This was the beginning of shopping at a distance, the magical transformation of the planet into a global cash register and shopping mall. All of human evolution had been tending towards this ability to market and deliver fake vomit anywhere in the continental United States, but we didn’t know it at the time. The computer time – because you had to indeed buy time on the computer and make an appointment – was scheduled for nine am.
They arrived somewhere in the 609 area code just south and east of Philadelphia, and my father began unloading the boxes of punched cards and lugging them along with the driver to the data processing room of the facility so that they might be stacked and read, one by one, in a fluttering spasm of machine scanning. Naturally this room was even larger than the back of the van, full of floor to ceiling mainframe computers whirling with spools of magnetic tape, humming.
A phone clamored on an enormous and likely black or beige desk model festooned with blinking half inch buttons, answered by one of the regulars. “It’s for Doyle.”
My father probably stared at the blinking buttons. He was always uncertain about which to push. “Hello?”
My mother was in labor with her third child.
My father began reloading the van with the cards. The fake vomit would just have to wait a little longer.
It was not long before my body asserted its difference: the skin began coming off my legs and torso in sheets. The doctor in Philadelphia took one look and said “Kaposi’s Varicelliform Eruption” as if it were a kind of self explanatory spell. Kaposi’s Varicelliform Eruption sounds like the name of a speed metal band, and maybe it is, but it was also a mysterious illness that seemed to announce the beginning of a long quest to figure out just how to live on this planet. After birth, I seemed to be an afterbirth – an event of shedding skin more than a persistent thing. My arms joined in the fun. I was shedding my flesh faster than I could grow it, making it a challenge to keep warm. My mom swaddled me and worked on warming me up. She must have thought she’d had a reptile.