When I left Chicago in late 1997 I wasn’t thinking about San Francisco; I wasn’t thinking about anywhere. I wondered where I would end up but it was just a vague, rootless anxiety because I had no idea.
I spent a season in a ski resort high in the Rocky Mountains near the Loveland Pass where you can glide through the trees lit by moonlight, a giant thirty-minute ski run in soft, untouched powder. A dozen of us hit the pass on those winter nights. We pushed back from the ridge, hurtling toward the valley, the sky blurry with stars. I would lean back on my board, waving the tip above the surface, snow buzzing my ankles like fairies. It felt like riding a cloud. We sailed through clusters of trees, jumping small creek beds. In the mountains nobody ever asked what you did for a living or where you were from. At the base, flushed and cold, we’d strap our gear over our shoulders and hitchhike back to the top.
When winter was over and the snow was melting I came down from the mountain. I drove into Southern Utah where they film the Nike commercials. I lay on a bench for twelve hours outside the Moab post office trying to decide where to go. I had left my fiancé and the weight of that was finally on me. I was in a part of Utah famed for its sandstone arches and deep gorges, kayakers paddling the rapids sweeping up along the pink and brown canyon walls. I kept all my possessions inside my hatchback: snowboard, bicycle, photographs, and several boxes of papers. I considered staying in the Lazy Turtle hostel with a hippie who made her living beading necklaces. Instead I continued on the Nevada 50, the “loneliest road in America,” a barren two-lane street across the longest stretch of the state, gas stations and a brothel every fifty miles, listening to Radiohead’s OK Computer until Reno rose ahead of me in a neon rage.
In San Francisco I slept above the Castro, the seat reclined as far as it would go. I went to the bars and asked men to buy me drinks. I would listen to their problems, acting like a young hustler, the real JT Leroy, except I’d been plucked off the streets years ago. I was better looking than when I was a homeless fourteen-year-old. My skin was clearer, and I was more prepared to strike a deal. But I didn’t have much to sell.
One man took me home. He lived on a small street in Twin Peaks. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. I slept in his spare bedroom where he kept a wooden cross with eyebolts and leather shackles drilled into the wall.
“If you come home drunk I’m going to chain you to that and fuck you,” he said.
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t,” I replied.
I was twenty-six and I hadn’t committed to any city. I had been crisscrossing the country like a dog chasing his tail and I was in California again. I hadn’t spent a year in the same house or apartment since I was thirteen. I thought I was just passing through.
It was a time when people were coming to San Francisco for a reason. Innovators and Ivy Leaguers clogging the entry ramps to the digital age, pulling the levers of the roaring stock market housed in cool server banks throughout the Bay Area. A gold rush was underway. The 101, the primary artery between the city and Silicon Valley, was littered with billboards flashing by like a flipbook advertising websites to nowhere. There were private parties every night in the small dark bars in North Beach and South of Market. They were easy to get into and inside everything was free. People talked about “vaporware” and “loss leaders” and “CRM” and the importance of losing money. They carried the next big thing on a disc at the bottom of their backpack. It was more random than a dartboard thrown at a map, but it’s where I ended up. Kids my age were billionaires overnight.
I got a job summarizing free catalogs for a database called Catalogs2Go. There was another temp whose only job was to find more free catalogs to order that I could describe. They came every day, hundreds of them: gardening catalogs, lawn furniture, fabric distributors, hand-made popsicle-stick houses. They sat above and beneath my feet, filling the shelves and window ledge. I tried to paraphrase five an hour, but that became four, and then three. Then I stopped altogether and sat watching the city through the window, all the people sifting between buildings downtown.
After a month I walked into the Vice President’s office and told him I hadn’t done anything in weeks and he didn’t know that because he had no system of accountability. I told him I could finish his website in ten days. They’d been working on it for almost a year.
“We don’t want to hire you,” he said.
“I’m not asking you to hire me,” I said.
He gave me an office and a phone. I asked people I met at poetry readings to write summaries at five dollars a description. The catalogs disappeared and the office became clean and the Vice President asked if I would join the company and offered me $50,000 and I let out a low whistle and that was that.
Catalogs2Go was the perfect symbol of the time, a website dedicated to giving away something that was already free, but it was just a whim of the Vice President, it had nothing to do with the company, and the technical support cost $20,000 a month. There was talk of shutting the website down. I thought when they shut it down I would lose my job, and I didn’t want to lose my job. It was the first real job I had ever had. In fact, I wasn’t going to lose my job. Nobody lost their job then. We were still a year away from the point where everybody lost their jobs all at once as billion dollar companies became penny stocks and office buildings became empty glass houses next to a highway with nothing of value left except the copper wiring.
I met someone who optimized websites for search engines and asked him to help me. He registered Catalogs2Go so it came up first whenever someone went looking for “free stuff”. Soon the site was getting 2,000 unique users a day and in 1999 you didn’t shut down a website with that much traffic. The company had a second round of funding and was hiring everyone available, but the ecommerce platform the company was based on didn’t work, or didn’t work well enough, and we were losing money on every client. I suggested we sell “search engine optimization.” I decided we should charge $3,000 a month.
It’s the period of my life that makes the least sense. I had my own apartment. I was making more money than I could possibly spend. I was engaged with my work though I recognized its basic absurdity. I was happy, probably as happy as I have ever been. When I tell people my story I talk about group homes, writing, sexual awakening. I talk about rooftops and drugs and relationships. I mention getting clean and graduating high school in two years and going to college only to finish University and fall right back in. I talk about the semester I took off to work as a barker for a live sex show in Amsterdam, and the affair I had with Miriam, the Surinamese cabaret dancer, whose husband was in jail for some violent crime. But I rarely talk about the fourteen months I spent working for a living in the place where I made most of the friends I’m closest with today, the people I hired. I rarely talk about it even though it’s the moment when modern events finally intersected directly with my life and I became part of the world.
I couldn’t get permission from my superiors to sell my product, but they weren’t saying no. Within six months my little department was billing something like a million dollars. I was given a bonus. I had five full time employees and my own temps. We hired the search engine expert. He had business cards made with the job title of “Jedi” and sent company wide emails on the virtues of gambling and getting high and was quickly fired, but it didn’t matter. I would promise rankings and then I would tell someone else to figure out how to get them. I was quoted as a search engine expert in the New York Times. I didn’t even know how it was done. In retrospect I guess it was a consulting model, but everyone wanted to believe we had created some magic software. Because once you admitted that it was just a college grad scratching his head and resubmitting a website with different taglines, then you had nothing to sell. The other companies had their own college grads making coffee and working for options.
In late 1999 and early 2000 companies were going public very fast and that was the only point. When I started at the company there were maybe fifteen employees; eight months later there were two hundred. The company, and the industry, was sinking under its own weight. The board brought in a new leadership team and when they came in they saw that the only thing turning a profit was me and my little crew in the back.
The new players were tan and fat. They organized sales meetings in Vegas with cabanas near the pool and had hookers sent to their rooms on company credit cards. I was given a new title, Director of Emerging Technologies, along with a saleswoman to help me push more search engine optimization. When we talked she put her hand on my thigh, or ran her fingers along my neck, or pressed my ankle with the toe of her shoe. She couldn’t sell anything. She didn’t seem to know what a search engine was. When someone would try to explain it to her she would gently pull the hem of her skirt over her knees.
And then I was bored with all of it. I closed my office door every day until noon while I wrote my third novel, What It Means To Love You, based on a couple I met when I was stripping in Chicago, Nancy and Pierce. The real Nancy was a runaway working as a high priced call girl. She regularly made $2,000 a day. Pierce was older, effortlessly good looking, with a square jaw, long braided hair, and teardrops tattooed beneath his right eye. Nancy wouldn’t share her money so Pierce supplemented his income sucking cock in video booths off Halsted Street.
The last time I saw Nancy she gave me a stolen dress, which I returned to Marshall Fields for a six-hundred-dollar credit. The last time I saw Pierce he was throwing bottles from the window of the studio they shared on the tenth floor of an elevator building on Belmont.
“See you later,” I said, while the cops stood around him watching him sweep the glass. But I never did.
Between March 10, 2000, and April 14, 2000, the tech heavy NASDAQ exchange plunged thirty-five percent. Other companies had already cleared out. Giant buildings south of the city sat deserted, as if no one had ever been there. Downtown was quiet, even in the middle of the day.
At work things were tense. Someone erased all the emails and documents from my computer. I led a weekly meeting but people stopped showing up. My salesgirl refused to talk to me. I was called in to discuss possible sexual harassment charges.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“You’ve never worked in a corporate environment before. It’s normal that you wouldn’t understand certain protocols. We’ll pay for you to take a class.”
Someone warned me, “I don’t know what you did…”
One weekend I broke into the COO’s email. There was a letter from my salesgirl. She wanted to meet him later and get a drink. Then she wanted to do that thing he liked. She also wanted to know when he was going to get rid of me. She was tired of me looking over her shoulder. He urged her to use the other account he’d set up, and yes, he couldn’t wait to fuck her, and no, she shouldn’t worry about me. He was going to take care of that. Everything was working fine.
The COO and the salesgirl were living together. Her resume was fake. They met in a strip-club. He left his wife and she left her husband. Now the plan was to push me out and take over my product. Though there wasn’t any product. It was like some cheap spy novel. I’ve never bothered to write about it because the characters are so black and white. The things they wanted had no lasting value. They weren’t conflicted enough to be frauds like most people, they were just liars.
It was a technology company but he had never changed his password. Same for his VP of Sales and my new salesgirl. It was amazing, actually, how many people had never changed their passwords from the one originally assigned: Welcome. I printed the emails and took them to the human resources officer. Like most of the senior management he was new. The old timers looking to cash in had cashed out instead and gone into retirement. A handful of companies would survive, led by Google, but the boom was bust.
HR offered me two weeks severance but I said it was going to take me longer than that to recover. The VP of Sales called me into his office and threatened to have me killed. I told my employees to watch my door and make sure it never closed. A meeting was scheduled for six at night in the boardroom on a Friday. I got the next plane to Los Angeles and went into hiding with Hart Fisher, my first publisher, in Granada Hills.
They cut me a check for $30,000 in exchange for my signature and a promise not to tell. I cashed the check. A month later the company sank permanently beneath the waves.
This would have been the time to return to Chicago, but I didn’t. When I left my fiancé I’d burned some bridge I hadn’t known existed. It was 2000. Ralph Nader was running for president. Hans Reiser was in Russia working on his file system, fulfilling a million dollar contract with the department of defense. His best friend was keeping his wife company in California while he was away.