We are at a dinner party. Seven people sitting around the living room after dessert and coffee.
The cast of characters includes: A researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. A newspaper editor. A powerful political reporter. An artist/free-lance editor. A person who helps run the Library of Congress. A Ph.D. in education who works in a think-tank and whose reports end up on George Bush's desk. (George Bush unfortunately gives them to Dan Quayle, who makes paper airplanes out of them, but that's another story.) And me.
What am I doing there? I'm the guy who was brought by his wife. Not that I don't try to hold up my end of the conversation.
When you sit in the bathtub, I ask the hostess, do you sit at the end with the faucets or the end without the faucets?
"I beg your pardon?" she says.
If you sit at the end without the faucets, it's more comfortable on your back, I say.
But then you have to reach way across the tub to turn on more hot water.
"You're not the designated driver are you?" she asks.
But if you sit facing the faucet, your big toe can get stuck in the faucet. So you know what I say?
The hostess looks at me. And I notice the Oxford English Dictionary woman and the Library of Congress guy and everybody else is looking at me, too.
I say it's six of one, half-dozen of the other.
And this huge silence falls over the room. And finally the host says: "You want some coffee? Before you go?"
So I am feeling kind of low and resentful and I say: So what have you guys been talking about?
"Computers," he says.
And it turns out everyone in the room, no matter what his or her job, uses a computer and can talk about them.
I use a computer, too. But I don't talk about it at parties. Or anywhere else. A computer is a tool. I also use a hammer and screwdriver from time to time. But I don't talk about them either.
So what's the problem? I say to the host. Your RAM bite your ROM or something?
"Actually," the host says, "it's the hard drive. My kid has put so much junk on there, games and stuff, it won't boot up properly. And I can't seem to delete the stuff."
Just throw the whole thing out and buy a new one, I say. That's the American way.
"You're closer to the truth than you know," the host says. "It's just an old AT clone, anyway. I figure I should just junk it and buy a 386, you know?"
I don't know. But I do know that about six months after you buy a computer, you regret it because you can buy a better one cheaper. But you can't trade in your old one, so you have to junk it or stick it in the basement under the Ping-Pong table next to the train set the kids never use.
You don't want to junk it, I say. What you want is a nerd.
Everybody looks at me again.
Nerds, I say.
Those kids in high school who dressed in white short-sleeve shirts and had a bunch of pens in their pockets and were getting de-pantsed all the time?
"Was it very terrible for you in high school?" the hostess asks me softly.
A real kidder, this woman.
No, I say. I am describing all these kids everyone use to make fun of who began playing with computers before anyone else did and now operate these computer businesses. You can actually rent them.
"Rent them?" the host says.
Yeah, I say. You call them up and they will come out and fix your computer. It's stuff that nerds can do in their sleep.
Eventually the conversation moves on to really dull stuff like the breakup of the Soviet Union, urban policy and the Mideast peace process and so I go home with a headache.
On Friday, my phone rings. It is my host.
"I thought you were kidding," he says, "but I found a nerd rental service in the phone book. I called them up. The guy came out to the house last night."
And he found the problem?
"Right away! Out of my 20-megabyte hard disk, I only had 45,000 bytes free," the host says and laughs. "I had filled up my hard disk with 19,955,000 bytes of information!" And then he laughs again.
I begin laughing, too.
"Do you have any idea why you are laughing?" the host asks.
None whatsoever, I say.
"Anyway, the nerd sat down and cleaned up my hard disk, got rid of the unnecessary stuff, organized my disk and installed an X-Tree program."
I begin laughing again.
"What's so funny?" the host says.
Sorry, I say. I thought I was supposed to laugh again.
"And in an hour, I was cleaned up with 15 million bytes free," the host says. "And you know what?"
"I thought I had an AT, but it really turns out to be an XT with a 286 chip and some turbo stuff! Can you beat that?"
Not even with a stick, I say. So much did the nerd charge you?
"A dollar a minute," the host says. "It took him an hour, and so it cost me $60. And it was well worth it. So thanks!"
After I said good-bye, I sat down and figured it out: At a dollar a minute, working a 40-hour week, and taking two weeks vacation a year, a nerd today can make $120,000 a year.
6* And we used to make fun of these guys?