The best and worst summer of my life started shortly before I graduated from high school.
It was close to six o’clock in the evening when my dad finally decided to call it a day and got up from the computer desk. It wasn’t that I really cared or followed his work so closely; I could care less to be honest, but since his was the only computer in the house and, more importantly, the only phone line entirely dedicated to connecting to the Internet, I had no choice other than to wait until I could have the computer to myself. But once I did, from that point onward, that small breakfast-turned-to-home-office nook would be all mine until seven in the morning the next day if I so desired.
The strong smell of stale cigarettes, all ten of them he dutifully smoked at the end of the day when he got home from work, was the first thing I had to get used to before sitting down on the still-warm fake leather chair, but I was in a hurry. I’d waited the entire day for the mail carrier to deliver two critical packages, and now that I’d had them for the last three hours, I just couldn’t wait any longer.
First, I opened the CD-ROM tray of our Compaq Presario 4110 Desktop, ripped the shrink wrap off the American OnLine (AOL) 2.5 CD, and popped it into the computer, gently but firmly forcing the tray to close a little bit faster. “C’mon, you piece of shit,” I murmured. The article I’d seen in a magazine had promised that this much-anticipated upgrade would make the entire user experience much faster, but more importantly, give its users the ability to use other applications than the ones provided by the AOL ecosystem, such as the Netscape web browser and, more importantly, the other application that had been delivered earlier: a CD installer for the I.C.Q. messenger.
For the last year or so, I’d come to rely on the chat channels and AIM client provided by AOL to keep up with my school buddies and make new online friends who shared my interests in programming and web page design. But the more I met new people and expanded those friendships, the more I heard about the broader and less restricted corners of the Internet, where information was limitless and knowledge was king. And knowledge-seeking was exactly what I was after.
Ever since I’d met Barret twelve months earlier, I couldn’t think of anything other than learning everything I could about the programming language called Microsoft Visual Basic 5.
Barret was the godson of Gianna, an older Italian woman who sublet the basement of a place where we lived for a couple of years before my parents bought our own house in Cliffside Park, New Jersey.
He showed up at Gianna’s one day during the summer of 1996 to spend a week with her, and the very first thing she did was send him upstairs to the first floor where we lived so he wouldn’t be bored. I think she didn’t know how to entertain a 13-year-old kid. Her own kids had grown up and moved out a long time ago, and she welcomed the opportunity to spend some quality time with her godson from Massachusetts, as long as that time didn’t exceed more than a couple of hours a day.
Barret and I didn’t click right away, probably because of our age difference and what back then I considered to be his lack of “real-life experience.” At that time my priority was strictly focused on how to get a girlfriend, my first one at that, while he only talked about computers and this new thing called the Internet. Yes, sure, I found those topics interesting, but being at the tail end of my teenage years and already flirting with the process of college applications, I didn’t want to be the only one in my group of friends who was yet to have a romantic relationship with a girl.
At the end of that week, something must have rubbed off from Barret on me because I started showing more interest in learning about programming, going as far as getting my own pirated copy of Visual Basic from a warez site I found online and installing it on my dad’s computer. Over the next year, Barret and I exchanged hundreds of emails sharing coding recipes, games, and applications I could use to continue learning my way around the world wide web, and learn I did.
Every day I used my 7th period in high school to get all my homework done so I wouldn’t have to do anything at home other than play on my Nintendo 64 until my dad clocked out. It was then that my real education started.
The Internet opened up a brand-new world for anyone who wanted to experience new things but didn’t like the idea of going to school to learn about them. Sure, Mr. Santos and Mrs. Hofferman made Computer Math and High School Physics interesting subjects, but the feeling of complete freedom and control that learning online provided was something that very quickly got a powerful hold on me.
Instead of having to sit in class every day from 7:50 in the morning until 2:45 in the afternoon, every day a slow repetition of the previous days, learning the same subjects in 45-minute intervals, I wanted to control the direction and speed at which I learned topics that were not even offered at school. Where else could I learn the skills to build a complete web page fully customized with my own CGI scripts to dynamically generate content based on interactions from those visiting my web site on Geocities? Where else could I meet people from virtually anywhere in the world from the comfort of my home?
It used to be that if I wanted to learn about a new topic or just brush up on something I hadn’t used for some time, I’d have to beg my parents to drive me to the public library or to the gigantic Barnes and Noble bookstore down in Edgewater, where I’d stay the entire day writing down ideas and copying code samples from the books I couldn’t afford to buy, so I could try them out when I got back home. The Internet gave me access to a massive, always open, always available, online library, and as long as I knew how to plug the right search terms into the AltaVista search engine, I felt that I could go on learning forever.
As time went on I learned how computers worked, how to fix them, how to get rid of software viruses, install printers and scanners, and as word got around that I knew how to do these things, people started paying me to come to their houses and fix their problems.
It was easy money for sure, and it was coming in as fast as I could find new customers who couldn’t be bothered to learn how to operate a computer. Having money also meant that I could finally start buying hard-to-find online programming books, which eventually led me to start a brand-new enterprise: writing small desktop applications for people who felt the need to steal information from their friends and relatives.
Yes, it was very irresponsible of me to enable people to use technology to trick others, but what did I know? I was only 17 and didn’t really think of the consequences that my actions could have on others, and as long as the money was coming in and my programming skills were being noticed online, I didn’t give a shit about what people were doing with my creations.
For example, my friend Ferdinand was locked out of AOL when his sister decided to change his password on him after an argument they had. She had the master account, and as the sole owner of it, she dished out new accounts and online access any way she wanted. Crossing her could get you a few days of no Internet at all until she was adequately flattered and cajoled into relenting and restoring things to normal, but this time Ferdinand felt that she’d crossed a line he was no longer willing to toe.
Writing a fake login application that for all purposes looked and acted exactly like the AOL application was pretty trivial for me by then, and capturing the master account’s password the next time Ferdinand’s sister went online and saving it in a hidden file that only I could access took less than an hour after I installed it on their computer. From that point onward, it was only a matter of getting my $50 before I uninstalled the application and revealed to him the master password. Whatever he chose to do with that information, it was none of my business.
The upgrade went faster than I expected, or perhaps it was just my excitement, but once the AOL CD was ejected and the computer rebooted, I put the second CD into the tray, and several agonizing minutes later I had I.C.Q. installed and ready for a test run. Lately, there had been a series of news articles talking about people getting tricked into sharing their credit cards and even their social security numbers by people pretending to work at AOL, and security had been increased to monitor anyone posing as AOL administrators.
Luckily for me, my preferred screen name, VBGuy, was still up for grabs in the I.C.Q. servers, and as soon as I was online I immediately searched and found the person I was looking for: SnowWhite.
Apparently SnowWhite had heard of my programming skills with the AOL interface from someone online, and earlier that week she (I assumed it was a female, but there was no way to tell for sure) had sent a message to my Juno email address telling me that she had a lucrative proposition for me.