The moment that changed my life

This is a story of how I rode on top of an elevator. Though that part comes in the middle, so I’ll warn you now that it’s more of an excuse to tell a different story.

When I started college, technology was impersonal. No Wi-Fi to check the weather while you’re out in it. No cell phones to call and ask people where they are (which would have been a weird question before the age of cellphones anyway, because on landlines you called places not people so if you called Andy’s house then—no matter who picked up—you knew where they were). No Spotify to fill your ears with playlists of Taylor Swift music (which also would have been weird, since Taylor Swift was still a year out from being born; and did you know that she was born in West Reading, Pennsylvania? That’s just across the Schuylkill, pronounced “SKOO-kill”, from where my grandparents lived).

And, most relevant here, no Facebook or Twitter or AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. This was even before anybody outside Finland had heard of IRC. The only ways to use a computer to actually communicate with someone were to email them, to post on Usenet and hope they’d notice, or to use the Unix talk program where anything you typed appeared on the bottom of the screen and anything they typed appeared on the top. talk was risky because it showed everything you typed as you were typing it, so by the time you typed in a snide reply and then backspaced over it, that was too late. (I remember bewildering and amusing a classmate because I would type all of my umms and my uhhs and my *scratches my head*s and other physical context cues while I chatted with her in a talk session, and that just didn’t make any sense to her.)

I don’t remember who or how, but somebody got me into a very small group of people who were testing a new program named “Forumnet.” It let a group of people chat together, line-by-line. This was revolutionary! Those few of us in the “in crowd” got kind of close, or at least as close as people could be before society has worked out the details of how to get to know one another through stealing bytes and moments on university bandwidth while we were supposed to be working on other things.

One of the people I got to know was Jessica. She was studying computer science at Rutgers. She made me a fan of Kate Bush (I spent a lot of money on tapes). And she was going through a difficult marriage; I remember she was sad that her husband always spent evenings out drinking with the guys instead of staying home with her, and I remember someone else told me her husband was sad that she never asked him to stay home with her instead of wasting time drinking with the guys. I’ve never forgotten that; kind of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. I want to use it in a story someday.

But one day she invited me to come hang out with her at Rutgers for the evening, let her show me around the place. I was young and clueless. I didn’t have a car, so I think I made her pick me up from my dorm and drop me off there at the end of it. I really wasn’t considerate, back then, I had led a sheltered life.

So imagine my surprise when she offered to teach me how to ride on top of the elevators—and my further surprise when I said, sure, okay.

“You have to call the elevator to your floor,” she explained. “And then step inside, and press the STOP button, and that keeps it where it is. Don’t worry, it won’t start buzzing. That only happens when somebody has called the elevator on another floor and it’s waiting on you, but we’re the only people in the building tonight, there’s nobody else here.

“And then you run up the stairs to the next floor,” she said, leading the way. “And then you … pry … the doors open … and you step through, onto the top of the elevator.” It was nearly pitch-dark, the empty elevator shaft above us.

“And then, you ride.” I don’t remember whether she had some way to control it or if the STOP button had finally timed out, but I felt a dip in my stomach as we started to ascend. I suddenly wobbled off-balance and grabbed for the nearest handhold to steady myself. “Don’t fall off,” she added as an afterthought. It was only then that I remembered her comment about us being the only people in the building.

“Duck,” she said, snapping me out of my dizziness, and I did so without thinking—just in time to avoid having my cranium meet an I-beam at the top of the shaft as the elevator slowed to a halt. She must have had some way to control the elevator, because she let it remain there just long enough that I began to wonder how I could get off the top of an elevator on the top floor … but then, with another dip in my stomach and my knuckles ghost-white in the darkness from holding on tightly, we started to descend.

We rode up and down a few times. I wouldn’t say it was fun, but it was memorable, considering that as I recall these events of three and a half decades ago, I’m right now squirming in my chair.

Finally we exited into the basement, where the computer science department lived. CS departments back then often had their homes in basements because that’s where plenty of air-conditioned space could be had for the mainframes (imagine a room full of units the size of refrigerators). It wasn’t something we computer majors took personally.

She took me among the stacks of printed manuals, the glowing VT52 terminals, and the desks piled high with science fiction books, until we turned a corner and there on a whiteboard I saw written the one line of text which was going to change my life:


“What’s that?” I asked Jessica.

“It’s a MUD,” she answered. “Try it when you get home.”

I’ll spare you the suspense: a MUD is a multiplayer online text-based game. like Zork, where you type in what you want your character to do (go north or drink bottle or kill the ogre with the axe), except that while you’re playing it there are other people at other sites who are also in the game and you can see what they do as they do it. Specifically, though, this “for a good time” site was a TinyMUD. The original TinyMUD. It focused less on “game” and more on “multiplayer;” there was a world full of places you could explore, and each place had a text description someone had written for it, and you could add your own locations to it with their own descriptions, and there were all sorts of other player characters wandering around through it and chatting, and you could choose your name and write your description and interact with these people in any way you chose (with, of course, attention given to the game’s Wizards who tolerated no destructive behavior and didn’t hesitate to turn troublemakers into toads. (Which effectively deleted their accounts.)

I was hooked. My hours of sleep declined dramatically. My social skills increased slightly, maybe, as I found lots of people in this game who were a lot like me. My understanding of technology—client/server networking, threads, processes, compiling, using pipes, no end of things I wanted to learn about how to work around problems with the game and even extend my abilities in it—went sky-high; a lot of the lessons I learned from early MUDding still inform me today. My grades plummeted. I was an adventurer there, carrying an elvish sword and a brass lantern (providing light), and I got to know computer science majors and science fiction fans from Carnegie Mellon and from Stanford and from so many other schools. Later I moved on to a different server, named Islandia, which was populated by dragons and foxes and wolves and tigers and rabbits and otters and skunks and horses and bears. I was a unicorn there, and when the day finally came to close the server after a grand online party where an ark was built and everyone role-played boarding it, I was the lone holdout, splashing and cavorting in the field around the ark as the rains fell and the waters rose.

I played on several other MUDs (and the offshoot MUSHes and MUCKs) throughout college and in the years beyond, nurturing friendships beyond worlds and across personas. But one day I realized that in all the places where I had played and was playing, though I was surrounded by different characters in each story, I was always among the same group of human beings who were playing those characters.

“What would happen if I introduced myself to an entirely different group of people?” I asked myself. “Would they accept me? Could I make new friends among them?” I noticed a MUCK based on something I knew absolutely nothing about: Disney.

So I created a character there.

To be continued.

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