Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


I spent all of my school years with the same email address – jkonrath@indiana.edu. I didn’t always get my mail on the same machine, and I had this complex shell game of trying to get accounts on as many machines as possible so I could have all of the quota to store my email and other junk. But I had that general philosophy of having all of my files in a central place. My computer at home was always a piece of garbage, and I was too nomadic to pop all of my mail to one place. So it all lived on various ultrix machines named after metals. When I left, those accounts got tarred and zipped and came with me to Seattle.

When I got to my first job, I hoped to get the address jkonrath@shitburger.com (replace shitburger with the actual company name), but they assigned accounts by first name. In my case, it ended up being jonathan@shitburger.com. This caused great confusion on many fronts. First, everyone wanted to email me at jkonrath@shitburger.com. A lot of people still emailed me at jkonrath@indiana.edu, thinking it would still somehow magically work. I found (well, I already knew) that absolutely nobody can spell the name Jonathan. (Johnathan, Jonathon, Jkofuiw849fthan, whatever.) Also, this caused a lot of people at the new job to think I preferred the long form of my surname, when in fact I hate it. Since only my mom and law enforcement officials actually call me Jonathan, being in an office where every marketing droid called me that made me think I was ten minutes from an FBI bust or something.

I also quickly got sick of my personal and work email coming to the same mailbox. This was long before workplaces got really shitty about how proprietary email was, but it became increasingly difficult to get at my mail from home or away. And it sucked when someone was hovering over my desk and someone non-work-related sent me an email about dressing up a sorority chick in clown makeup and banging her on a pooltable. (I have weird friends.)

After about six months in Seattle, I decided to buck up and pay for a real ISP. At that time, the only place in town that offered a shell account was the Speakeasy Cafe. I think it was like ten bucks a month. Most people would go in there and sit at a computer, sipping their tea and sending emails, but I just wanted a unix machine, centrally located, a place to keep my junk, and run emacs.

Back before Speakeasy became a huge ISP, they were just a cafe. They had a big Solaris box, a bunch of terminals, and an espresso machine. The place was in Belltown, a part of Seattle filled with trendy art galleries, the kind where the walls are covered in dayglo tempra paintings of native american wolves fucking, the kind of stuff you don’t want to look at when you’re on acid. The cafe was all wood and black-spraypainted terminals, like something out of Singles, but with computers. I don’t drink coffee; they didn’t serve Pepsi or Coke, only Afri-Cola, a weird little import in a strange-shaped bottle that tastes like RC Cola at twice the price, but a penny of the cost went to the rainforests or something. They sometimes had food specials, scrawled on a chalkboard menu, free-range wok-seared something-or-other. No burgers. No BLT.

But I got that account, untarred my old bronze archive, changed three or four things, and it was running like I never left. All of my old mail was there. Emacs still ran, with the VM mail program and the BBDB address book. My web page came back to life. There were text files with lists of things I was selling six months ago, right before I left town. It was like taking everything in your house, shrinkwrapping it, and transporting it across the country into another house, so when you woke up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, you’d still find the glass on the counter.

I came to Belltown every month, to pay my tab. This was before the days of Visa-enabled online invoices; you showed up and put your cash on the counter. I think you could prepay a year in advance, but at this point, I was so tapped that all of my grocery shopping consisted of only buying the stuff in the Safeway coupon book. (And those are gone now too, thanks to those stupid cards.) But Belltown was an engram burned into my mind. Every time I came down there, I’d stop at a store filled with antique junk that was pried from houses that were gutted. Clawfoot tubs, ornate molding, wood bannisters sat on the floor, all of the pieces of last century that were yanked when some Microshit Millionaire wanted to redo their colonial house to look “zen.” I dreamed of somehow buying some land in Montana or Idaho or Wyoming or whatever and buying all of this shit and building a haunted mansion.

I never hung out at Speakeasy much, although it was the place to hang out for the hipster set. I tried to go in there once and kill a few hours on a Friday night, to see if anyone cool would be wandering around, but it was either people who already knew each other, or strangers who wanted to tunnel into their account and read the web with the lynx web browser. It wasn’t a swinging scene by any means. Later they started showing movies, having bands, but really eclectic stuff. I met Trent Harris there, when he was screening The Orkly Kid movie. And for a while, I was trying to do some kind of collaboration with a cartoonist named Daniel, and we’d meet there and then go elsewhere, where they had greasy food or cheaper drinks. (I was trying to get him onboard about filming a movie that parodied Apocalypse Now but was about trying to find a parking spot in Seattle, called A Parking Spot Now. Never happened, of course. I still have notes somewhere, though.)

Speakeasy became big and somewhat dumb, nationwide, and with DSL and wireless and whatever else. It was nice when I moved to New York, and I could keep the same service. But eventually, things got stupid, and they kept fucking up their shell accounts. Finally, I gave up, pointed my mail to my home machine, and turned on ssh so I could get to it anywhere. And the cafe, sadly, burned down. I think it’s condos now. They never reopened, and maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t think people can really wrap their heads around the idea of going somewhere to use the internet, unless they’re using their laptop and stealing someone else’s WiFi. Even the idea of a shell account is alien to pretty much anyone.

Bleah. Time to go read.