july 27 1996:
people I've met from online

met Aneesa the day before I had to go back to Vassar and finish up the year after spring break. She's actually a lot closer to Aubie than to me; they chat a lot and email a lot and Aneesa sent Aubie her zine. Aubie has written some about their friendship on his pages. But anyway, she was the first person I met from online. We know her from Planet BMUG, a FirstClass BBS run by the Berkeley Mac Users Group. She lived about an hour away via BART train from Aubie and me: a trip down to the Oakland transfer station nestled into the freeway, and then east through the tunnel under the Berkeley hills and into the beginnings of the valley. But that's getting ahead of things.

Aubie generally sits down in his basement room, at his desk, at his PowerBook Duo, typing away at something while I bop around the rest of the room, changing the music, or reading loose sections of newspaper. He was logged on to Planet BMUG and Aneesa was on, so they were chatting. One of the things I had been reading while floating around Aubie's room was Aneesa's zine, which was all handwritten and xeroxed in an edition of about 20 copies, just single sheets folded in half and stapled so it fits in your hand. I'm not really sure what to say about it - it had vague hippie/folkie overtones, but mostly it was just earnest and smart and charming as all get out. So I told Aubie, mostly idly, that we should try to go out and meet her.

Meeting people from online holds a sort of fascination for me. The same fascination is at work when I attempt to bridge two social scenes of friends I have met in the flesh - like meeting a friend from Vassar in Berkeley somewhere, or having a high school friend come visit me in my East Coast dorm. I just have this thing where I like to make connections between disparate worlds. It's almost just a physical delight, like a baby playing peekaboo and being amazed that everything falls back into place.

back to the present...

Aubie started typing weird random things into the chat window and claiming to Aneesa that it was me who was saying them. "Hey Aneesa, Mike says he wants to meet you and fling you over his shoulders" and stuff like that. Thankfully Aubie started laughing like hell, so I noticed he was up to something and managed to prevent some of the damage. I didn't want to come off as a scary guy. I could have, quite easily, since Aneesa was really Aubie's friend, not mine - aside from the natural kinship you feel with the other young folks in a mostly adult online forum - and Aubie didn't seem to want to go meet her as much as I did. But I was the one pushing for it to happen. Aubie kicked back and treated the whole thing pretty lightly. Aneesa's typed responses were comparatively unemotional, open-minded, maybe a little cautious. I was a little uncomfortable for a while, but she agreed that she'd work with us and give it a shot.

She wasn't allowed to get on BART to go meet two 20-year-old guys in Berkeley, so we had to go to her. The relative lack of freedom, compared to mine, among my female peers has always been an issue with me. I'd say BART is a pretty safe place, except for a handful of stations. But then, I'm a 6'5", 270-pound white guy. But then again, it's a question of whether you are safe, not whether you feel safe. But now I'm not making any sense.

Aneesa emailed me her phone number - I don't remember how we arrived at that - and told me to call early the next afternoon to work out a meeting. Her voice on the phone was deeper than I expected, but still plausibly teenaged. "Hi... is this Aneesa?" "Yeah. This is Mike?" "Mm hmm." "So when can you guys be out here by?" I thought that we'd spend some time dispelling our mutual nervousness with a few pleasantries, but instead we wound up just sort of mechanically arranging the mechanics of the afternoon. It was weird, and it worried me.

Aubie and I were to meet her at her end of the BART ride at about 2:00. By the time we got out at the strange, too-hot BART station on the other side of the hills, we were at least 20 minutes behind schedule. I looked around at the people scattered around the gates, mostly suburbanites fussing with ticket machines, and anounced "Hey, is anyone here looking for us?" Aubie smacked his forehead and wondered why he puts up with me, but instantly a shoulder-length-brown-haired, possibly freckled young woman in a blouse and thin green sweater stands up and smiles and comes towards us.

Aneesa is gorgeous, but better than that, she appears to be too smart to waste time on the whole God-I'm-so-ugly mental-blinders shit that plagues so many teenage girls. She simply behaved as though her appearance was not an issue. So it wasn't. (Or mostly it wasn't. It's always a little bit of an issue with all the guys I know. Certainly with Aubie and me.) There was a scary moment of silence as we first stepped out from under the tracks into the light and across the parking lot, but soon we were yammering away about schools, stores and snack foods as Aneesa showed us around town.

I had gone through this BART station once when I was still in high school, to go to a concert my mom's choir was giving in this horrifically well-funded church building. I had arrived an hour early, and all I could find nearby back then to entertain myself was a Target store and a bunch of shuttered, ostentatiously '90s office buildings with fountains out front. With Aneesa, we marched right by that Target parking lot and turned right onto a beautiful and healthy retail avenue with a great bookstore. The bookstore's café had a back patio the size of a small oblong dorm room. It was separated from a parking lot and shipping entrance by a tall fence, and had a few tables. We sat there and talked more, about zines and Disneyland. Aubie and I monopolized the conversation a little. We finished our drinks and headed back out - they indulged me in a quick look at the old "storefront theme park," Virtual World Entertainment, original home of the BattleTech VR games. They had this front room that was done up to look like an old Victorian parlor bar. I thought it was sort of neat and tried to strike up a conversation with a couple of the Young Dudes sitting around, but Aubie and Aneesa harangued me to leave. We hit a newsstand; I bought Altoids.

We wound up in this park, in what might have been the center of town. Aneesa told us about the kids who'd sneak onto the open staircase and climb up onto the roof of the perenially-under-construction building across the street, right next to the police station. We wandered into this big, cream-yellow gazebo, about 25 feet across with twelve sides, and perched ourselves on the railings of three consecutive sides. It was funny - you could totally imagine the Chamber of Commerce trying to hold some Fourth of July event here or something, while the kids in black jackets watched from the shade over by the tennis courts, and while the traffic screamed around the French curves of the bounding avenues, past office parks and dentist offices. But the weather was beautiful when we were there, the park was quiet but populated and it was a good solid gazebo. Eventually we picked a bench out on the grass and mused about college. Aubie and Aneesa sat on opposite ends facing each other, sort of, while I sat to the side facing the two of them, playing with twigs and interjecting comments. The snow wasn't all gone yet back at Vassar, and I was so happy that I was in the sun with friends in a strange town. The shadows got longer behind us, over by the stoner's bench behind the "community center" shack - maybe Aneesa knew some of those kids, she wasn't sure - and she walked us back to the BART station and waved goodbye.

Then there's Mimi. This story is a little more amazing to me. If you watch the Top 50 Things, you're familiar with Mimi at least in passing. I discovered Mimi's page when she sent me one of those great total-stranger emails that I live for. She succinctly praised my page (in about 5 words), and I don't think she even included her URL; I computed it from her email address. I went and looked at her page and it completely kicked my ass, as it continues to do, and I emailed back to tell her so. Soon we had a semi-regular correspondence going. I floated the possibility of her coming up from Columbia to Vassar for Founder's Day fairly early on.

Nothing but mutual admiration came of this until a few weeks before the end of the school year. I emailed Mimi that I was planning on going to the Museum of Modern Art that weekend, something I hadn't managed to accomplish in 3 years of Manhattan proximity and 2 years of art-major-hood. (I did try to go once, in my sophomore year, on a Wednesday; they're closed Wednesdays.) Mimi replied that she hadn't been there yet either, and she'd spent a year living in Manhattan. So we agreed that she'd meet me there, then after the museum we'd try to reconnoiter with my friend Suze, whose pages Mimi had also admired, for dinner.

I got to the museum on time, and looked around the lobby for a little Filipino girl in a big coat. Couldn't find one. I tried the "Hey, is anyone here looking for me" line again, but it didn't work. Then I realized that Mimi was in fact sitting on a bench right in front of me, looking down and wearing a Walkman. I bent way over and waved, and she noticed me. I don't remember what kind of description of myself I gave her, or how well I matched it, but it was fun to watch her uncertainty turn into certainty, even after she smiled and stood up to head for coat check with me, just kind of assuming I was Mike, because, well, there I was. So we stood in line for tickets and talked a little hesitantly, getting used to each other's voices.

The museum was fun, of course, and totally exhausting. We did the painting and architecture sections and sort of skimmed everything else. Both of us were sort of wondering out loud about the whole aura-and-reproduction thing - do you really have to see a work in person to get the whole experience? Does it really make that much of a difference? I think we agreed that while the real things were often better than the reproductions, we couldn't really detect some fundamental aura that was lost on the printed page. Until we turned a corner and this one large Jackson Pollock pulled us over to it from 30 feet away. It was all different shades of pure black on raw canvas, and we stood there for a good few minutes just being physically overwhelmed by the thing. The room it was in had a bunch of other action paintings but they all paled in comparison. We left the room with these beaten-up smiles on our faces, like we had gotten off a roller coaster.

Mimi now claims that over the course of our talk that day, I convinced her to switch her major to art, a move she was already considering. I'm not sure what I said. I just sort of threw her all my moderate opinions on museums and art education and the kinds of approaches that you can take to your education. She said that Columbia's art department was pretty focused on studio visits and an almost stereotypical approach to Contemporary Art. Vassar's art department is much more laid back, perhaps due to its small size.

After the museum we wandered around the 5th-and-50's area until we found a couple of pay phones on Madison. I tried to call Suze's pager number but it kept not going through. Mimi and I sat on the sidewalk reading Wired while we waited for a callback. Eventually we gave up, and I felt guilty, imagining Suze wondering what the hell was going on. We headed west to Broadway, passing the Late Show with David Letterman theater (woo ha! boy is it ever less impressive in real life) before finding a suitable subway for heading up to Columbia.

Columbia had been having some problems that week - a hunger strike and massive student protests, all about the administration's failure to recognise an Ethnic Studies major. Some of Mimi's friends were involved, and she expressed concern for them, but she didn't seem to be all that worried about it herself. There was a little dome tent in the campus' central plaza, in which a handful of hunger strikers were camping. A fold-out table a few yards away showed a sign counting off the days of the strike, and was always staffed by a couple of students who looked depressed but not bored. There had been 12 days of hunger strike when I arrived. Officially the hunger strikers were allowed to have protein shakes a couple of times a day, and I assume water and stuff.

I checked in my student ID at the security booth at the entrance of Mimi's dorm. Literally handing over my meal ticket, for guest privileges. I signed in. The condition of the dorm was even worse than that of my own dorm, often cited as the shoddiest dorm at Vassar. Mimi said her dorm used to be an insane asylum. We went up to her boyfriend Dan's room. Dan is tall, sorta Eurasian, into kung fu in all its aspects. The whole time I was there he seemed pissed off that Mimi wasn't working on the comic he wrote. Maybe he thought she was setting aside time for it until I showed up. I dunno. We sat around in Dan's sizably miniscule white-walled room and I mostly listened to the two of them talk. Dan talked about his impressive, wealthy kung fu teacher and the place he goes to in Harlem for videos. He used blocking moves on Mimi's punches.

We went out for dinner, to a teeny weeny little Japanese place. I got what sounded like the safest thing on the menu, a beef dish. It wasn't safe - basically I didn't get much food for my money, and rice refills were extra. But I was digging the neighborhood, the relative appeal, safety and freedom that I sensed there compared to other parts of town. We hung out in Dan's room some more. Mimi drew Dan's comic, I drew Mimi. Eventually it became time to retire and Mimi showed me down two floors to her room. She shuffled through her CD collection a bit, then bid me goodnight and went back up to sleep in Dan's room. She shut the door while I sat on the bed. People passed by in the hall outside the door, where the lights were brighter, and I could hear them perfectly, making occasional, happy dorm noise. It made me feel good to be there, suspended in a strange place, between that welcoming environment and the dangerous park and slums that I could see out the opposite wall's window, to the east. Mimi's room was tiny and had a sink. It really did feel like a converted asylum, but I felt safe.

I couldn't sleep immediately so I raided the bookshelf. I read Black Orchid, which I remembered from my old superhero-comic-shop days, sitting there over on the mature-readers shelf, being ignored. Apparently it was the first Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean collaboration, leading to the terrific Mr. Punch. Elsewhere on the shelf, I learned the pseudonym under which my English professor publishes his genre-fiction and zine experiments, and I grinned like a madman. But eventually I curled up in Mimi's blankets and slept perfectly.

In the late morning, Mimi and Dan fished me out of her room just as I was getting dressed, and we went a few blocks down the avenue to a Mexican place for breakfast. The two of them poured sugar on the buttered toast and I followed suit. Then we spent some quality time in one of those great, paranoid Manhattan ATM bunkers. I held the door for some lady who was coming in, which sort of defeats the whole purpose. We went back across the campus plaza, which, as I noted in a Top 50 Thing that lasted a couple months, was being set up for a Campus Carnival that had obviously been planned before the protests happened. There was a band to the left of us and big compressed-air bouncy things to the right of us. The weather was grey, and the hunger strikers' tent was still up, so the crowd was even thinner and less interested than it would have been normally. We took it in stride; it was all pretty funny. A couple of meaty-looking dorky white guys handed out flyers from off a black music stand and talked about how the Ethnic Studies protesters were demanding "special rights."

I think Dan and Mimi were going to go buy another video - Mimi was pushing for either saving the money or getting a nice normal movie this time - but they walked with me down into the subway station. As I took my first step away Mimi stopped me and gave me a hug, which didn't quite work because we were at the wrong angle and, well, I'm twice her size. But it was sweet. Anyway if you really want to know what she's like, she can tell you better than I can, on her own pages. I got off the subway above Times Square and headed back to Grand Central.

in other news...

"Why must I always apologize / every time that I sit down to write?" Sorry this is so, er, long. I hope it's not boring. And I wish it had pictures. I'm just not even going to bother apologising for lateness, I know I have no excuse. In any case, I do thank those of you who keep tuning in, and I appreciate your support and emails. Hopefully this will get easier someday. (Don't forget there's a mailto: link down there somewhere.)

For those of you who've missed it so far, here's Mimi's page, which is a must if you appreciate good personal pages. Also if you haven't yet looked at Aubie's page you really ought to. It's possible that you can only appreciate his writing style to the fullest if you used to read it every month for three years in the high school newspaper we ran. But although it's erratic, it's worth a look. I've also got some reference on the way Aubie and I ride BART.

Welcome back home, summer's almost over. I've yet to spend much time with many of my old Albany friends. Mostly I just wander around between home and Berkeley thinking, "wow, it's so beautiful out, I'm so grateful for all the great things to do around here and for the freedom to do them, and I am such a bad person for not working harder."

read more about it!

Planet BMUG (join us! joooooin uuuuuss!)


BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)


Columbia University (Their newspaper is listed as an official publication, not a student publication. Their reticence on the Ethnic Studies stuff might have to do with this. The progressive student paper, Modern Times, has an empty directory.)

Museum of Modern Art (finally they have a halfway decent site)

NYC Subway Resources (as opposed to the official site, which I couldn't get to function. Surprise, they also have a great San Francisco page.)

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Tales From The Dork Side are copyright Mike Sugarbaker, email for permission to redistribute.
Updated July 29 1996