Tonight looked like it was going to be another boring Saturday alone in room 221. After I got back from dinner, I got on the computer and dialed up to the school Internet service. Computers weren’t connected to the Internet all the time back then. The technology to do that existed, but most people couldn’t afford the kind of connection required for that. We normal people had dial-up modems, connected to regular old telephone lines in the wall. As I connected, the modem made the sounds of dialing the seven digit phone number to connect school accounts to the Internet, followed by the usual sound of ringing that one hears from inside the telephone headset while waiting for the other side to answer. After the call was answered, the modem made a bunch of whirring, dinging, buzzing, and hissing sounds as it established a connection. When the terminal window showed a command prompt, I typed “irc” and entered the chat that the school computer system defaults to. Because this was the default for connecting through a UJ server, I occasionally saw other UJ students in that chat.
Today, while looking at the account info for the other people in the chat, I saw a UJ account with a name that I recognized: Schuyler Jenkins. She lived upstairs from me on the other side of the building, in room 306. She was short, with brown hair and glasses, and although we were on friendly terms, she had a strong and fiery personality that reminded me a bit of the kind of person who feels a need to compensate for being short.
I decided to play a little prank. To this day, I’m still not sure why I did this, but I thought it would be fun. It was fairly easy with IRC to change both your name displayed in the chat and the actual name that people would see when they looked up your account information. Ever since I discovered that I did not need to have my real name on there, I had used “A soul in tension,” a line from a Pink Floyd song, as my real name.
I needed to think of a fake name. I typed “Eric Kingston.” For some reason, that was the first name that popped into my head. The real Eric Kingston was one of my brother’s friends back home; we had numerous inside jokes about him. I changed my screen name to “KingEric” and reentered the chat.
After a few minutes, I sent Schuyler a private message. “hey, you go to jeromeville?” i typed. I waited to see if she would respond… and she did.
KingEric: me too
sky246: i can see that, eric kingston. so what’s your major?
I hoped that I knew enough about chemistry that any questions about my made-up major would stand up to scrutiny. I really liked chemistry in high school, and so far I seemed to be understanding chemistry just fine this quarter.
sky246: you’d fit in well in my dorm. lots of science and engineering people here.
KingEric: which one?
sky246: building c in the south area. the honors program.
KingEric: oh no way, i’m in building a
sky246: that’s cool. i wonder if we’ve ever run into each other at the dc?
sky246: what do you look like?
KingEric: blond, about 5’11, blue eyes, freckles. what about you?
My made up description was based on the real Eric Kingston. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, other than actually describing myself.
sky246: short, thin, long brown hair, i wear glasses
KingEric: nice :) what’s your major?
KingEric: do you know what you want to do with it?
sky246: i’m not sure. maybe go to grad school and become a professor. or maybe teach high school.
KingEric: so what are you up to tonight?
sky246: just staying at home in my room. this creepy guy who lives in my building has tried to ask me out twice in the last few days. i don’t want to run into him again tonight
KingEric: uh oh. why is this guy creepy? this sounds like a good story
sky246: his name is jared. he’s just weird. he sits in the common room playing scrabble all day. we have a class together, and he’s only been to class once. and at the dc, he always looks for some random girl and tries to sit with her. if you ever see a guy with shaggy blond hair at the dc trying to sit with some girl and getting rejected, that’s probably him
KingEric: i haven’t noticed him, but good to know
sky246: what’s your favorite animal?
KingEric: cat. why?
sky246: just wondering
KingEric: what’s yours?
sky246: you have to promise not to laugh. it’s kind of silly
KingEric: ok, i promise
sky246: platypus. i don’t know why, i was obsessed with platypuses ever since I was young. where are you from?
I was tempted to correct Schuyler and tell her that “platypuses” should actually be “platypi,” but irregular plurals were a Greg thing, and I didn’t want her to know that I was really Eric. Also, I learned later in life that “platypodes” would be an even better irregular plural, since the -i ending came from Latin, but the -odes ending, like the rest of the word “platypus,” was derived from Greek. Also, I hadn’t thought about where Eric Kingston was from. If I said Plumdale, it could again lead back to me, especially since Plumdale is pretty small, and most people in my building knew I was from Plumdale. If I chose almost any other place, she might say something that would give away my lack of familiarity with that place. But maybe I could say something near Plumdale, so that I would be familiar enough with that place to talk about it.
KingEric: santa lucia
sky246: i like it there. i’ve been there a few times. i’m from santa teresa, farther down the coast
KingEric: it seems nice there. but i’ve only seen it a few times from the freeway
sky246: it’s beautiful there, right in between the mountains and the beach
KingEric: that sounds nice
sky246: yeah. i’m hoping to move back home someday, but if i become a professor i might have to work somewhere far away
KingEric: true. i don’t know where i’ll be when i’m done
sky246: you’ll figure it out
KingEric: i hope so
sky246: hey, i need to go. but we’ll talk again sometime, i hope?
KingEric: yeah! have a great day!
I signed off a few minutes after Schuyler left and played Tetris for a while. After I got bored with that, I checked my email. Back in 1995, no one used words like “memes” and “viral” in the context of the Internet. Email was just becoming mainstream about that time, and the 1995 equivalent of memes and viral posts was to forward something noteworthy or funny to everyone on your email list. I had just started to receive these in the last few months. Today I had one from a girl I knew from IRC named Charlene, who lived in Texas; she often forwarded these messages to me. I opened and read her message:
Hi, friend! This message is full of sunshine! Follow the directions and you will have sunshine in your life! Just answer these 11 questions, and then forward this message to all of your friends, but give them 11 new questions to answer.
I read through Charlene’s answers to the 11 questions she was given. She wrote about the last time she followed her gut on a big decision, whether she prefers a frugal or generous significant other, how reading fiction is different from nonfiction, and a number of other subjects. Then I read the questions that Charlene had written for her friends:
Where do you get your news?
If your job gave you a surprise paid three days off, what would you do those three days?What is something that you resent paying for?
What is the most expensive thing you have broken?
What was cool when you were younger, but is not cool now?
What is something that no matter how evolved we become will always be popular?
Who do you go out of your way to be nice to?
Who was your craziest/most interesting teacher? What grade did they teach?
What are some red flags to watch out for in your daily life?
If you could move one character to play in a different movie/show, what character would it be, and to what movie/show?
What protagonist from a book or movie would make the worst roommate or spouse?
This could be interesting, I thought. I clicked Forward, and copied and pasted the email addresses of everyone in the IHP into the Recipient field. I didn’t have to type the addresses myself, because earlier in the year, someone had typed everyone’s addresses and sent the list to all of us, in case any of us ever needed to send an email to everyone.
I started typing my answers:
Where do you get your news? From the Daily Colt (the campus newspaper) and the Capital City Record (the nearby big city newspaper).
If your job gave you a surprise paid three days off, what would you do those three days? I’m a college student. I don’t have a job. But if I had three days off school unexpectedly, I’d probably get caught up on homework and studying. Then I’d do a lot of sleeping, reading, and playing around on the computer.
What is something that you resent paying for? Welfare, via tax dollars. The government shouldn’t be taking my money and giving it to people who didn’t earn it.
(Of course, I didn’t have a job, but my parents earned that money and chose to give it to me. No one forced them to give it to me. So the same principle applies. I would still feel this way if I did have a real job.)
What is the most expensive thing you have broken? One time last year, I was angry and punched a hole in my bedroom wall. Does that count?
What was cool when you were younger, but is not cool now? Vanilla Ice. When I was 14 years and 2 months old, he was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I had outgrown him and his music by the time I was 14 years and 3 months old.
What is something that no matter how evolved we become will always be popular? Breathing. Breathing has been in style since prehistoric times. Either that or the Rolling Stones, since they’ve already been popular for over half a century.
Who do you go out of your way to be nice to? I would hope most people. But I’m more likely to go out of your way to be nice if you’re nice to me.
(In retrospect, given what would happen over the next few days, this answer was interestingly ironic.)
Who was your craziest/ most interesting teacher? What grade did they teach? I’ve had a lot of crazy and interesting teachers, as well as a lot of favorite teachers for reasons that “crazy” and “interesting” don’t describe. The first one who comes to mind is Mr. Pereira, my PE teacher from 9th grade. He would give silly nicknames to some students (for example, there was a kid who always wore a blue hoodie, not sure if it was gang related or not, but this teacher always called him “Little Blue Riding Hood”). He also made up funny names for some of the activities we would play; the flag football class championship was called the Toilet Bowl, and when we had to run two miles on the day before Thanksgiving, he called it the Turkey Trot. And one time I told him my stomach hurt, and he told me to go take a shit.
What are some red flags to watch out for in your daily life? People who don’t think the rules apply to them.
If you could move one character to play in a different movie, what character would it been and to what movie/show? Bud Bundy on Beavis and Butthead. The three of them could all fail at picking up chicks together.
What protagonist from book or movie would make the worst roommate or spouse? Any of the boys from Lord of the Flies. They would probably turn into savages and try to kill me if I took up too much space in the refrigerator.
I then thought of eleven questions to ask others, typing them as I thought of them.
What place would you most like to visit right now, if neither time nor money were a factor?
What is the farthest away from home you’ve ever been?
What is the longest you’ve ever waited in line, and what was it for?
What is the weirdest or most noteworthy story you have about how you met one of your friends?
What is something you liked to eat as a kid, but you don’t like anymore?
If you could bring back one discontinued product, what would it be?
What was your least favorite thing about school?
If you could change one law/rule/etc. that applies to you, what would it be?
Who is your celebrity crush?
If you could change your name, what would you change it to? And if you like your name the way it is, why?
What’s that band/singer/musician that you’re a fan of, but you’re kind of embarrassed to admit it? Come on, everyone has one.
I clicked Send, and my email went to everyone in the IHP, waiting to read other people’s answers to my questions.
The next day was Sunday. I went to church, and then to the dining commons to eat. When I got back, I noticed that a small group of people sat in the common room talking. Karen Francis saw me walk in. “Greg!” she said. I looked at her, and she looked kind of upset.
“Yes?” I replied, stopping to look at her.
“Don’t ever send me those chain emails again.”
“Seriously. Those things are obnoxious and a waste of time.”
“I’m sorry. I just thought it would be fun.”
“It’s not fun.”
“What about when other people have sent stuff like that to the whole building? Why are you mad at me and not them?”
“I’ve also asked other people not to send me stuff. It’s not just you.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
I walked back to my room, and the first thing I did was turn on the computer and take Karen off of my email list. I felt a little put off by her reaction. I had no idea that people got so angry at this kind of thing, and I was just trying to have fun. This wasn’t the first time I had made people mad through my lack of Internet skills; shortly after I started following the Pink Floyd Usenet group, I was scolded for asking dumb questions that had been answered already. And this would definitely not be the last time I made people mad with the Internet.
Classes did not meet that Monday, because of the holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I woke up fairly early, as I usually do, but I stayed in bed until almost 10:00, mostly reading. When I finally dragged my butt out of bed, I looked outside. It was sunny, but cold. I put on a hoodie and got on my bike, riding south toward the creek.
A dry creek bed ran through the UJ campus. At some point in the University’s history, the creek had been blocked at both ends, and storm drains from the campus were directed into the creek, effectively making it a very long, narrow lake. From one end, where the creek bed once intersected Highway 117, to the other end in downtown Jeromeville, the lake was almost two miles long. An arboretum had been planted along both banks of the creek, featuring trees and plants from all over the world. A path ran along both banks of the creek, so that it was possible to make a long loop around both sides of the arboretum. The arboretum provided a refuge of sorts from the busy atmosphere of the rest of the campus, giving one the impression of being deep in a forest somewhere. I rode my bike two complete laps around the arboretum, then returned to Building C and showered.
The rest of the day was fairly lazy. Around five in the afternoon, I was on my usual IRC chat, and I noticed Schuyler signed on a while after I did. It was time to be Eric Kingston again. I had been talking to a girl from New Zealand; I told her I would be back later, and asked her to email me. I signed off and came back a few minutes later as Eric, and I messaged Schuyler.
KingEric: how are you? did you do anything over the long weekend?
sky246: just sleep in and catch up on studying. what about you?
sky246: have you eaten yet tonight?
KingEric: no. you?
sky246: no. it’s funny, someday we might be sitting right next to each other at the dc and not even realize it.
KingEric: that would be funny. or maybe i’ll figure out which one you are, and i’ll just sit next to you and say something like hello platypus… just to see your reaction
sky246: haha. how will you know who i am?
KingEric: well… actually… i already know.
KingEric: earlier this weekend i was at the dc talking to this guy named greg from your building, and i asked him if you were there, and he pointed you out.
I had a feeling I knew what was coming next. Time to see the reaction. About a minute later, I heard footsteps and a knock on my door. I hid the window on my computer screen. “Come in,” I said.
Schuyler opened the door with an unhappy look on her face. “Please don’t tell strangers personal information about me,” she said. She turned around to leave.
“Hello, platypus,” I replied, grinning.
Schuyler stopped and turned to look at me. “What?” she said. “It was you this whole time? I hate you. You’re evil and a horrible person.” She slammed the door and stormed off.
Well, this wasn’t what I was expecting. I was just playing a harmless prank, I thought, but her reaction certainly didn’t make my prank seem harmless. I felt terrible now. And messing with someone’s head like this really wasn’t like me. I closed the IRC window on my computer and just stared at the screen for several minutes. Maybe I should just stop using the Internet. All I’ve done so far this weekend is make people mad at me. I felt like hiding from the world forever and never trying to make friends with anyone again.
I ate alone at the dining commons that night. I saw a few people I knew, but I decided I wanted to sit alone. When I got back to Building C, some of the guys who lived on the first floor were sitting in the common room watching a movie.
“Greg,” Spencer said when he saw me. “What did you do? Schuyler was down here earlier saying you were a horrible person.”
“I was chatting with her on IRC pretending to be someone else.”
“Wow” Jonathan said. “That’s pretty impressive that you pulled it off. But still.”
“I feel really bad now. I was just playing a harmless prank, trying to see her reaction.”
“She sure did react,” Spencer said.
“Are you going to apologize?” Jonathan asked. “You might want to. She’s really upset. I think she’s in her room now”
“You’re right,” I said.
I walked up to the third floor and knocked on the door of room 306. Schuyler answered, and when she saw it was me, she tried to close the door in my face. I stuck my foot in the door so that it would not close all the way. In hindsight, this was a bad idea, because it kind of hurt having the door slammed on my foot.
“Schuyler,” I said. “I wanted to apologize.” She opened the door about halfway, but still just glared at me, saying nothing. “I just wanted to play a prank and see your reaction. I didn’t think about how your feelings would be hurt, and it really isn’t like me to do something like that.”
Schuyler sighed. “Come in,” she said. She sat on her bed, and I sat on her chair. I noticed that Schuyler’s roommate was on the other bed, studying, so I tried to stay out of her way as much as possible.
“I know you’re mad at me. But I’m not good with people. I’m still learning how the world works. And I’m also not good at using the Internet in general. It seems like all I do is make people mad at me without realizing it.”
“I believe you,” Schuyler said after a pause of a few seconds. “Apology accepted. But I’m still hurt. It might be a while before I feel like talking to you again.”
“You’re right when you said it wasn’t like you to do that. You’re not mean. And that’s part of the reason I was so hurt.”
“I need to get to work. But I appreciate you saying something.”
I got up to leave. “Bye,” I said. “I’ll see you around.”
I left without saying anything else, but I had something else to say while I was in the mood for apologizing. I walked to the other end of the third floor and knocked on Karen’s door. “Hi, Greg,” she said, opening the door just a crack, just enough to see her face.
“Hey. I’m sorry about the email the other day. It seems like my Internet habits are just making people upset these days, and I really didn’t mean to be annoying.”
“I know,” Karen answered. “And I’m sorry I snapped like that. I’ve just been in a bad mood the last few days. And I’ve had friends and relatives emailing me this crap for years, and I’m just tired of it.”
Well, look at you, with your rich techie background and all of your friends and relatives who aren’t new to the world of email, I thought silently. But what I said out loud was, “I took you off my mailing list already.”
“Thank you. And don’t worry about it. It’s really not a big deal.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you later.”
“Bye,” she said, closing the door as if in a hurry to get back to what she was doing..
I walked back to my room and lay on the bed for a while, just thinking. This whole weekend felt like I completely failed at the Internet. And even though I had apologized, I still felt like hiding from everyone. No matter what I did, I would never be able to have a group of friends like a normal person. All I do is make people mad and say things that they don’t understand. And in hindsight, I don’t even know why I tried to make Schuyler think I was someone else. Nor did I know why I decided to answer Charlene’s questions. It wasn’t like me to be mean for no reason, nor was it like me to actually take the time to reply to emails like Charlene’s.
I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. Maybe I wasn’t as hopeless as I felt when it came to making friends. I did have friends. So what if I kept to myself a lot. There were people in Building C, and a few outside of Building C, who cared about me and wanted to talk to me. So what if I made some reckless decisions. People do stupid things sometimes. Everything feels like culture shock to me right. Living with seventy other students my age is a new experience for me. I didn’t have a lot of interaction with peers at all growing up, and I was still learning. Making mistakes, making people mad, getting into arguments, these are all part of the process. Real friends apologize when they make mistakes. They are honest about their feelings, and they stick together through it all.
Schuyler and I did end up on good terms eventually, although she didn’t talk to me much for the next couple weeks. And Karen was fine once I took her off the email list. She wasn’t really hurt, just mildly annoyed. I should also point out that I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the reason why Karen had only opened the door a crack and had seemed in a hurry to get rid of me: Pat was in Karen’s bed with his shirt off, and possibly other clothing missing as well.
AUTHOR’S NOTE from 2019: The email from Charlene (curiosityconfession.wordpress.com) was actually her nomination of this blog for the Sunshine Blogger Award. The rules are to thank the blogger who nominated you, answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you, nominate new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions, list the rules, display the Sunshine Blogger Award in your post/or on your blog, and notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts. Thank you, Charlene! I don’t normally nominate people for stuff like this, so as not to annoy the Karen Francises of the world, but if any of you reading this want to do it on your blog, go for it. And post a link to your blog below so other people can go take a look at it.