In 1999, people thought their computers were going to kill them.
Since then, the “Y2K bug” has been a largely forgotten episode but it was a pretty damn big deal at the time. To be clear, since you are reading this – obvious spoiler alert – the world didn’t end, but at that time folks were definitely unnerved and thinking that was a possibility leading up to New Years Eve and the end of the 1990s.
Even without social media and the level of connectivity the world has today there was a lot of chatter and speculation. The press played its normal role of framing the story, instilling fear and generally freaking the more gullible subset of the human populace the fuck out.
And what better story than the Y2k bug? If you recall (and please continue even if you don’t) there was a glitch in computers of all types that would manifest when the internal computing clocks struck 2000. Apparently, in many computers the code was programmed in such a way that only the last two digits in years within the computer’s internal clock would change, meaning anything past 1999 wouldn’t be recognized or the internal clocks would change from 1999 to 1900 and stop functioning. In the run up to New Years that year there were a myriad of other related, horrific, Maximum Overdrive-style possibilities being floated.
(Yeah, that description sucked. Look, I’m not a computer scientist and you most likely have internet access. Feel free to go Wikipedia to find a better explanation, Einstein.)
As my admittedly diluted explanation shows, I (and most people) were never quite clear on the mechanics of how it was all going to go down but that still didn’t stop us from thinking a computer glitch was going to cause ATMs to stop working, transit systems to not function and planes to fall out of the sky. Factor in the timing – the end of the century and millennium – with its typical religious zealots and never-do-wells predicting the end of the world and the Y2K bug story became bigger, and more frightening, than was probably necessary.
For me though, that year was marked not just with all that nonsense floating around in the collective human ether, but my impending completion of graduate school in Boston. Those two factors – and an additional one more personal – resulted in me having a very “fuck it” or, to be more polite, “come what may” attitude as the millennium closed.
To add more color to this wondrous period of my life, I was in my mid-20s finishing up graduate school at Emerson College. Emerson, located in downtown Boston, had a fairly unique set of classes at the graduate level. For me specifically, they offered the relatively rare option of receiving what amounted to a Masters of Arts in marketing. Since I despised numbers of all types (stop staring at me 27!) and my undergraduate degree was in marketing I made the decision that the “B” in MBA wasn’t ultimately necessary to my career. Plus my GMAT scores – a test which I took on two hours sleep and terribly hung over – showed me to be highly proficient in the area of verbal matters, reading comprehension and creative writing. Conversely, my scores in math placed me firmly in the middle seat of the slow bus to Dumdumville.
And honestly, after being out of school for a year and a half and working for a Wendy’s franchisee I decided I wasn’t ready for the real world quite yet. Especially if the real world entailed me sitting in my Honda Prelude timing how long it took on average for a car to make it through the Wendy’s drive-thru. For 75 locations. In 3 different states. With that or graduate school as an option, tens of thousands of dollars in school loan debt didn’t seem so bad.
I was and continue to be aware of the fact that marketing and advertising folks are generally held in about as high regard as politicians and serial rapists and that historically marketing classes tend to attract an “Island of Misfit Toys” collection of castoffs from other, more esteemed curriculums. But for whatever reason, I seemed to have an aptitude for the “art” and theories of marketing. As a result, I enjoyed those classes immensely and almost exclusively, no doubt resulting in the good grades I received in those classes. Those grades then propelled me into the academic virtuous cycle that dropped me like a twister (cyclone not ice cream) in Boston.
And resulted in my story present-time as well as future-tense predicament: a marketing career.
One of the other plusses to attending Emerson College was that at the time they were considered one of the most “wired” colleges in the country. And though the late 90s don’t seem that long ago, when considering the acceleration of technology that has occurred in the past decade plus since; we were at the time closer to rock scraping Neanderthals versus the multi-screen consuming super humans we are today. A “computer lab” with a half dozen computers with Word Perfect installed was a big deal. And the ability to readily access the burgeoning World Wide Web was hugely impressive. And not just for the photos of naked women you could view and/or print out. And all joking aside, that process DID occur painfully slow as the photos revealed themselves line by pixilated line like an extended computerized erotic massage.
In addition to shifting my career toward more digital-oriented marketing, there were a number of big personal events that occurred while in Boston.
Just physically living there was one of them.
I had moved to Boston after getting accepted into Emerson College without every visiting either the college or city. The first time I experienced both was when I pulled up in my friend’s car and moved in with 4 people into a tiny multilevel apartment in Beacon Hill. I had never met any of them before. It was a very real world experience, in a MTV kind of way, too. Eventually I met people from all over the world, of all creeds and politics (okay, well, it being Boston it was mostly liberal), and even became good friends with a number of gay guys – which, for someone who lived his life primarily in small towns in the Midwest was eye-opening.
Very early during my first year in Boston, I ended up in a relationship with one of my 4 roommates. She was smart, beautiful and my first true relationship. She was half Spanish, half Columbian and was at Emerson to be a political reporter. She actually even had her own multi-hour, NPR-like political radio talk show at the school. My father had discussed/yelled politics at me my entire life and here I was at 24, sipping a beer with a beautiful girl and discussing the pros and cons of European-style socialism versus the free market system.
It was a passionate, intense and ultimately confusing relationship for me. It was the type of relationship where we would scream, she would spit in my face, I would break something against the wall, and then we would immediately smoke weed and sleep together. We broke up multiple times and she cheated on me every time she went back home to New Orleans (and of course made a point to tell me about it). And in the interest of full disclosure, I cheated on her as well but only during our “breaks.” She never agreed with the importance of that distinction, but I truly felt like I had some emotional and definitional air cover for my actions.
I wouldn’t trade that relationship for anything. Sure, it was ill-conceived and crazy – as she and I both likely were – but I learned a lot about women and life, even if the primary lesson was that dating a roommate is a poor idea in general. This is in addition to the ancillary, repeatedly forgotten lesson that my intelligence drops in half in the face of real (or imagined) interest in me from females.
We broke up for good a year and a half after it began. We had been running on fumes at that point, and she wasn’t really happy in Boston. We discussed me moving back with her to New Orleans and I actually considered it for a spell, but even with my then emotional naiveté I knew that would end badly. Most likely for me.
One night she took a call from the apartment in Southie she rented while sitting on my lap in her kitchen (she had moved into her own place at that point). She listened, hung up and then began to sob uncontrollably. Her mom had called to tell her that her father had collapsed in the kitchen and was at the hospital in a coma. He had suffered a brain aneurism mid-sentence during a dinner party.
I helped make travel plans for her, and in fact bought her plane ticket on a credit card. She caught the first flight out that next morning. A small blessing was that she ultimately managed to make it in time to see him before he died – though he never regained consciousness. It was a crushing shock to her mom and family, as he was only 50 years old when he passed.
There was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t see her again.
But I did. But only once: when she came back to get her stuff and fill out paperwork dropping out of Emerson.
She had decided to withdraw from Emerson and move back to New Orleans to live with her Mom, and this while needing only a few more credits for graduation. There was no discussion between us because I had zero say in the matter. And I had made the decision previously that I wouldn’t move there. Not that it mattered, since she had started dating her high school boyfriend in the month since our separation. Which (again) she dutifully told me about and who she promptly cheated on…the day she told me.
The next morning, I walked her to the “T” – the subway in Boston. There, I stood with her waiting at the Harvard Avenue stop for the “B” Green Line that would eventually take her to the airport. We ended up quickly hugging but it had as much passion as a hand shake with a stranger.
She stepped on the subway. And I never saw her again…
…But I did trade an email with her once.
A few days after Hurricane Katrina I sent her a quick email asking her if she was okay and if there was anything I could do to help her and her family. Earlier that night, I had been watching hurricane coverage and became concerned when the network anchors explained that Metairie, just northwest of New Orleans (and where she had moved back to) had been particularly hard hit by the storm. I emailed without expectation of a reply. And respond she did (and quickly), thanking me and telling me she had lost everything and was temporarily living in a dorm room at the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. (I couldn’t help but think to myself – with whom?) She also told me she was a reporter and part-time producer for the local CBS station in New Orleans, and had been one of the last to stay on the air that night. She mentioned that she and her family were relocating to Houston and she didn’t know what would happen next.
And I don’t know what ever did, either.
[Editors Note: Well, until…]