Category: high tech

Back to the command line

Since setting up my first Raspberry Pi, I’ve become interested in running Linux on other platforms.

Over the holiday weekend I found my father’s old Acer Windows 7 laptop and pulled all the photos and other data files off it preparatory to wiping it completely. The last time I saw it running was shortly before he died in 2015 and it was very slow and, I suspected, infested with viruses. There is a lot of crap out there that specifically preys on old people, getting them to download “PC cleaner” and other utilities to tackle malware that in fact load more malware of their own. My father’s laptop was just about unusable.

When I got it running again I found the hard drive was nearly full as well. I didn’t have any way of quickly figuring out what was taking up all the space, but I suspected a bad Windows setting. I’d run into this myself recently, with my work PC’s drive quickly filling up all the time because of some wonky system restore or backup setting (I’ve forgotten which one now, even though this was only a week or so ago). I believe (but do not know) that a nearly full hard drive can hurt performance, since it limits the ability for the system or applications to use virtual memory.

I was nervous about booting up the machine and getting files off it, since I didn’t want to infect my own PCs. But I considered that whatever malware was on the laptop had to be at least four years old, so by running an up-to-date virus scanner on it I should be able to confidently clean it up before copying files off it. I was also concerned about connecting it to my home network, in case there were any worms installed on it; but then worms are actually kind of rare and again, any worms I did encounter would be old and easily detected ones. So I booted it up and connected it to the internet via our WiFi and downloaded and ran MalwareBytes. I was surprised MalwareBytes didn’t find any serious viruses, just a lot of PUPs (450 of them).

I wasn’t very worried about the hard drive space issue, because all I wanted to do was get the photos and stuff off the machine before I wiped the drive and loaded Ubuntu. Still, it took several hours just to get to that point, the laptop was so messed up and the scan took so long.

While the laptop was chugging away with the MalwareBytes scan, I used my PC to download and install Ubuntu onto a bootable USB thumb drive. Then once I got what I needed off the laptop, I booted it from the thumb drive and installed Ubuntu, wiping Windows and everything else on the hard drive in the process. When I rebooted Ubuntu came right up, there was basically nothing else I had to do. The laptop had a USB wireless mouse installed that didn’t work, but I don’t yet know whether that’s because Ubuntu didn’t recognize the device or because the mouse batteries were dead. I’ll look into that later.

So now I have two Linux systems. And next month after we replace a couple of old laptops we use in the warehouse, I’ll have two more.

While Ubuntu and Raspbian both feature GUIs, I am far more interested in becoming proficient with the Unix/bash command line interface (CLI). Maybe it’s a middle-age thing, but learning a CLI is very exciting and nostalgic for me. While I am of course reminded of my abortive attempts to learn Unix in the 198s0 and 1990s, more than anything else my new Linux machines take me back to my first encounter with personal computers, when I was put in front of a brand new IBM PC XT at Irvine Photographics in 1984.

I was in charge of the art department at IPG and my boss was eager to get into digital imaging and production, which was in its infancy in those days. That summer I attended the Siggraph 1984 show in Minneapolis, looking for 8088- or 8086-based computer graphics software (most vendors laughed me out of their booths). In fact, the most powerful DOS-based business graphics package on the market at that time was produced just a few minutes away in Newport Beach by Zenographics, but I’d left IPG before we got as far as installing and running any computer graphics packages. We didn’t have any application software at all, since the PC XT was never meant to be used for office applications. No, all I did with the machine, after learning how to turn it on, was immerse myself in the PC-DOS command line. And boy was that fun.

Anyone who was part of the computer industry in the 1980s is familiar with the legend of how MS-DOS came to be (and consequently how a tiny company called Microsoft became the most important software company in the world). You can paraphrase its technical evolution by noting MS-DOS was based in part on CP/M which was based in part on Unix. Superficially, there is a substantial resemblance between the Unix and MS-DOS command lines (I won’t comment about what, respectively, is going on under the hoods). I think this is part of the attraction Unix and Linux hold for me: I was very comfortable with the DOS command line, and in some ways the Unix shell simply offers a far more powerful variant of DOS.

I do remember sitting down at the IBM PC XT for the first time. It had a 360KB double-sided 5¼ inch floppy disk drive and a 10MB hard drive, very high-end specs for the time. I opened the manual to figure out how to turn it on, since I assumed there was more to it than flipping the orange power switch. But that was all you had to do. You flipped that switch and after a short time (a very short time compared to what people who grew up with Windows are used to) you saw a C:> prompt (not a C:\> prompt). And that was it. What do you do now?

So I opened the loose-leaf three-ring PC-DOS manual and started reading. Probably the first DOS command I learned was DIR, to see a directory listing (equivalent to Linux’s ls). I’m pretty sure I saw the DIR command in the manual, carefully typed it in and hit return, and muttered, “Whoa!” This was really something. My first command on a PC.

Now this wasn’t my first experience with computers. A couple years earlier I’d taken a BASIC programming class at Saddleback College, followed by a class in the Pascal language. While I was taking the Pascal class I also worked as a lab assistant in the Saddleback computer lab. I would help students with Saddleback’s Data General Eclipse system and with their BASIC code; not because I was any kind of a computer whiz at that time, but because I understood the system and coding just slightly better than the students did. In fact, I recall being quite mystified and even intimidated by the Eclipse minicomputer. All I knew about its workings was how to code and run a program, and how to print a listing.

But the IBM PC XT, well, it was different. Basically, it was my own personal computer, to do with it whatever I wanted. And since we had no software for it, all I could do was learn to manipulate the operating system, PC-DOS. I’m sure that doesn’t sound very exciting in 2019, 35 years later, to work on a computer with no application software (not even games!), but DOS was rich with commands to learn, and well as concepts like batch files, the ANSI.SYS driver and the PATH.

I vaguely remember the moment when I learned about the AUTOEXEC.BAT file, the set of high level routines and programs the system ran upon bootup. It’s almost unbelievable today, but when you started a new IBM PC for the first time, there was no AUTOEXEC.BAT at all. DOS simply loaded into memory and you were deposited on the root director of the boot disk with a C:> prompt (or an A:> prompt if you booted from a floppy disk, which was usually the case, since hard drives were very expensive and kind of rare). So I started EDLIN (DOS’s built-in line editor) and wrote my own AUTOEXEC.BAT. I have no idea what it did. Probably created a PATH environment variable and modified the prompt and changed the current directory. After all, there wasn’t much you could do on a machine with no other software installed. But there was power in that: I made the machine do something automatically, every time it started.

Over the next few years I got to the point where I could make MS-DOS sing and dance. The folks at Zenographics wrote a version of the Unix ls utility for DOS that added tremendous new functionality to the CLI, particularly recursion. With batch files, which are the equivalent of Unix shell scripts, I could combine several command line utilities from Peter Norton with the ANSI.SYS driver to produce elaborate front end and menu systems for DOS based computers. People marveled at what I could do from the DOS command line.

And then Windows v3.1 appeared and all that capability was rendered instantly obsolete, redundant, superfluous. The DOS CLI was dead.

But the Unix CLI never died. To be frank, Unix was probably on its way out around the same time, but was revived by the explosion of the World Wide Web, most of the infrastructure of which was and is Unix-based. I’ve never seen this suggested anywhere else, but I believe the Web itself was responsible for a resurgence in interest and importance of Unix, which otherwise would have gone the way of the VAX; while the development of Linux simply accelerated the trend. And while the popularity of GUI-based desktop variants of Linux might impact the acceptance of the Unix CLI to some extent, I doubt it will ever go away the way the DOS CLI did following the ascendancy of Windows.

For one thing, the Unix shells are far more powerful than the DOS CLI ever was. For another, I don’t think there is much reason for a typical user to install Linux at all unless he or she intends to take advantage of the CLI. While starry-eyed Linux evangelists imagine a future utopia when the great mass of computer users abandon their Windows, Mac and Android clients for the open-source power and utility of Linux desktops, Linux clients are and always will be of primary interest to those who lean towards geekery, great or slight. And the geeks will keep the CLI alive.

And so here we are.

My first Raspberry Pi

I bought a Raspberry Pi this week after ruminating about it for literally years. I finally decided there are a few projects I’d like to attempt that will require the Pi (some of them can be accomplished with an Arduino, but I am more comfortable with a complete single-board computer rather than a controller).

First I bought Eben Upton’s book and read halfway through it and decided it didn’t look too bad, and of course it sure doesn’t cost very much (more on that later). Then I pulled the trigger on a CanaKit starter kit with Pi, case and power supply.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ installed and running

For years I have wanted my own Unix/Linux system to play with. I have long been fascinated by Unix, and sometimes regret not having got more involved with it back in the 1980s when I first joined the technology industry. But between 1985 and 1994 my employers operated in the DOS/Windows/IPX markets exclusively. I did have a few opportunities to dabble in Unix over the years.

Keep in mind that until Linux came along in the mid 1990s there was really no way economically to use Unix except through a shell account on a shared server (like my old account). Unix ran on expensive multiuser minicomputers and workstations, and you were unlikely set up one of these in your spare room.

In early 1985 I briefly worked for Touchstone, a company that produced Unix software, and we had a couple systems in the office for development and testing: a Fortune Systems 32:16 and I believe a machine from Altos Computer Systems, both running Xenix. My access to these machines was fairly restricted. The company also had some kind of relationship with AT&T, which at that time owned Unix, and one day a complete AT&T 3B2 workstation with Unix System V appeared on a desk in the middle of the office. The 3B2 was a very expensive platform as I recall, and I believe this was some kind of freebie for potential development partners. However, no one from the development side of the company had anything to do with the machine as long as I was there, it just sat on an otherwise empty desk in the middle of the marketing department. When I had spare moments, I would sit at it and fool around with Unix System V (this was the first of these mysterious unassigned office machines that I encountered in my career; the second was big Mac workstation sitting in the middle of the Cisco UK office in 1994 that had Mosaic installed, which was the first time I ever saw the World Wide Web).

Once I left Touchstone, however, I remained firmly in the world of DOS, Windows, Netware and IPX/SPX until I joined Cisco a decade later. I first started fooling around with TCP/IP stacks for Ethernet adapters around 1989, but it was still on MS-DOS PCs.

By the early 1990s I was working for Newport Systems, and while we had nothing to do with Unix at that company, one of my colleagues loaned me a copy of The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll, in which he goes into some detail of his work with Unix, which again ignited my interest in the operating system.

A few years later, at Cisco, I was tasked with working on the development of a number of network-related software projects, and found myself researching many RFC-based network utilities and protocols, all of which were heavily connected to Unix and used many Unix standards and techniques, such as plain text configuration files (which were very attractive to anyone who had to suffer with the Windows registry). The Cisco campus on Tasman Drive was festooned with Sun workstations, many of which seemed to orphaned or abandoned like that AT&T 3B2 at Touchstone, and again when I had time I’d find myself noodling around with Solaris, Sun’s version of Unix.

But all this noodling doesn’t really get you anywhere.

In the late 1990s Red Hat popularized Linux distributions that could be installed quickly and easily on basic PCs, and I recall buying a surplus PC from my employer and even installing Red Hat on it on my kitchen table, but I don’t remember doing anything with it after that; I think I moved to San Francisco soon after and never had a chance to play with my Red Hat machine. Then for a while I used a shell account, I think with, for e-mail and Usenet, but that was all.

During the 2000s I would occasionally find myself with an obsolete laptop and I often intended to install Debian or Ubuntu on one, but I just never did it. By then I was no longer involved in technology except as a hobby, and not much of a hobby at that.

With the Raspberry Pi I intend to tackle a number of objectives. First, there are a handful of small motion control and other projects I’d like to attempt for which the Raspberry PI and its component ecosystem would be a good fit. Next, I want to be come more proficient with Python. I’ve spent the last few years trying to learn Python in an admittedly desultory way; I buy a book and work through some of the exercises before I put the book away fro a few months or years. With the Pi I’ll be obliged to employ Python for any of the projects, and for me that’s the best way to learn any new skill: by actually using it to make something I need or want.

Finally, because it’s a Linux machine, I really hope I can finally become familiar with this environment. That’s just gravy, because I was considering the Raspberry Pi for project-related work before I learned it ran Linux natively.

I’m really very impressed with this little computer. Once you use the mouse, keyboard and monitor to set up the Pi and connect it to your WiFi network, you don’t need them anymore; you can connect to the Pi with SSH or VNC. I’ve trained my Pi to connect to both my home and office WiFi networks, so now I can access it at work or at home simply by slipping it into my shirt pocket and taking it with me (I’ll get dedicated power supplies for each location so I don’t have to carry one around).

Headless Pi

Naturally, I’ll want additional units for the various projects I have in mind, but at about $55 a pop for the Pi, case and microSDHC card, it’s cheap and easy to get as many as you need.

The free-floating apex

When I was at Cisco I worked on a project team that was headed by a woman who was, well, by the standard of the other people at Cisco, not very competent. But there was widespread understanding (in fact, I believe it was actually spelled out by management) that Cisco wanted to see more female executives at the higher levels (there were only a few, because there were in those days very few women in tech, though Cisco was co-founded by a woman). Anyway, this woman’s team members did not report to her, we were from other parts of the company, with different specialties. She was a mid-level “executive” or “manager,” but she had only a single direct report, her personal assistant. In other words, she was a “free floating apex” because while the company wanted to see women in high places, they did not trust this particular woman with her own department; not because she was a woman, but because she was not very competent (Cisco had other very capable female executives, but apparently not as many as they wanted).

She was not held in very high regard by many of my fellow team members, either. It wasn’t that we didn’t like her, it was just that everyone recognized she wasn’t very good at her job.

One day she sent a spreadsheet to a very widely read internal e-mail mailing list. A minute later her assistant sent a follow up message saying the spreadsheet was personal, sent by mistake, and would everyone please delete it. I deleted it. While I can be as voyeuristic as anyone, it can only be with strangers. I don’t like reading letters and other private stuff of people I know.

But a guy I worked with had no such qualms. As soon as he got the second message he opened the spreadsheet, and later he told me what was in it. It was a record of this woman’s stock option grants (everyone in the company kept such a spreadsheet handy, and updated it daily with the closing share price). At the time of the e-mail fale, her options were worth $10 million (they would have been worth several times that by 2000).

So this woman who owed her position, we all presumed, since she was obviously not very competent, to her two X chromosomes, was worth ten million dollars. Okay, that was nice for her, but it was sure pretty fucking demoralizing for everyone else, especially people hopelessly stuck with a Y chromosome who were obliged to perform with energy and excellence if they wanted advancement and stock options.

That was, in some ways, when you think about it, a hostile work environment. But no one really cared too much because in the late 1990s the rising tide was raising all boats, no matter what kind of chromosomes you had.

The Great Greenwich Village Pubcrawl of 1987

The Great Greenwich Village Pubcawl of 1987 began in the Broadway Lounge of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City. The new Marriott Marquis is where the old Astor hotel used to be, and the circular Broadway Lounge overlooks Times Square eight floors above the street.

The Broadway Lounge is a revolving bar which turns in a counter-clockwise direction at varying speeds. The last time I was there the floor revolved pretty quickly, but during my first visits it moved like the minute hand on a clock; stationary to the naked eye but turning inexorably nonetheless. I first encountered the Broadway Lounge in July of 1986, during what MTV called “Liberty or Death Weekend,” when I spent an afternoon and most of the evening up there with some people from HA Bruno. We were all getting soundly pissed on the various mixed drinks which were brought to our table in a seemingly endless supply, due primarily to Bruno’s excellent credit with the Marriott.

When we found our seats at the Broadway Lounge, they were under the windows near the southern wall. Three vodka-tonics later we were 180º opposite where we had first sat down. When I noticed this I became extremely nervous, then leapt to my feet shouting, “What the hell’s going on here? Stop this goddamned thing at once!” I attempted to cuff a passing cocktail waitress and climb over several other seated patrons to get out of the bar, but Damon and Richard got up and wrestled me back down into my seat. They seized a shot glass of ice-cold syrupy Stolichnaya from a neighboring table and shoved it up under my nose. I knocked the filthy thing back and ceased from that moment to worry about the revolving Broadway Lounge, though I did get a little agitated later when scenes from David Wolper’s grotesque and tasteless Statue of Liberty Celebration, which was taking place at that moment less than five miles away, appeared on the overhead television screens.

The next summer, the Broadway Lounge held no horrors for me. By the time matinee crowds spilled out onto 7th Avenue that fateful Sunday in September I had spent countless inebriated hours on that great spinning plate, drinking untold numbers of vodka-tonics and consuming frightening quantities of the Marriott’s unique and nourishing cheese crackers (which were, mercifully, free of charge for drinking customers). I was a well-recognized veteran of the Broadway Lounge, and because the various persons from whom I typically cadged drinks always paid amply and promptly, I was a popular fixture as well, at least as far as the management was concerned.

That day Jimbo and I had become fed up with the tedium of booth setup for our respective companies and left the Javitts Center for the cool hospitality of the Broadway Lounge at around 3:00. We felt mean and ugly, and decided to walk back to Times Square from 12th Avenue through the noise and stench of the stale asphalt jungle of Hells Kitchen. By the time we found our seats in the revolving bar 20 minutes later we were tired and thirsty, and demanded immediate attention from the waitress in very loud voices.

We had been in New York for three days, and were wrangling with a creeping exhaustion which threatened to result in complete systemic breakdowns in both of us before the show even started in two days. It was imperative, we decided as we collapsed into the deep maroon chairs and ordered three drinks apiece to begin, that we break the wave of trade show fatigue which threatened to claim us before the real partying began in earnest Tuesday night. An Event was definitely in order, immediately, tonight, one highlighted by revolting excesses and terrifying depredations rendered upon the citizens of this debased and forsaken city. We could see no other alternative.

We also had to find someone to pay for these drinks. The Broadway Lounge is very cavalier about running up drink tabs on people. Long experience has taught them that if they serve enough drinks to a table, eventually someone is going to become so bent that he’ll pay anything they ask. Within a half hour Jimbo and I had run up a $75 bill by sucking down five drinks each, and we were only getting started. It was critical that a fish was found before the tab got much higher.

About 4:00 our prayers were answered when Lono Pituitary showed up and sat with us. He was my techie then, and to this day can always be counted on to do the British thing and pay for lunch, dinner, the bar tab, taxi fare, your car rental, an abortion, whatever. He chain-smokes like an Arab, and conversations with him are punctuated ceaselessly with terrible phlegmy back-cracking coughs which echo like pistol shots, especially when you make him laugh, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, — HACK, CHACK, HACK, CHACK, WHEEZE, HACK, HACK!!” The three of us started discussing women, I think, getting more and more boisterous as the conversation developed. Lono P pulled out his American Express card and called for another round of drinks.

Ten minutes after Lono P sat down Stagg Meander appeared in the midst of much cheerful yelling and slapping of backs. He was living in Sumatra at the time, and remains a huge bearded guy who gets along with most people who aren’t dickheads and has friends in every city in the world I’ve ever visited with him, except Boston, where he usually struts around provocatively in bright yellow and purple Lakers t-shirts. He drinks like a tuna, gambles like some dissipated example of faded European nobility, and casually ingests many mind-altering substances of the sort proscribed by virtually all US law enforcement agencies. He is a good man to have standing by in hazardous situations, when a special weirdness is required to confuse the enemy and make good your escape. Stagg sat down and we shouted at the waitress for another round of drinks. Jimbo drank Jack Daniels over ice, Lono P sipped at gin or some such foul swill, Stagg was an inveterate addict of White Russians, while I stuck to the venerable and time-honored vodka-tonic.

Stagg announced that there was a jazz festival of sorts that night in a number of select bars in Greenwich Village, and that we had to make immediate preparations to go there with him and two old friends of his he ran into that afternoon at the Moroccan Embassy. I wanted to know why the hell he wasn’t at the Javitts Center with me in the afternoon, “You bastard,” I screamed, “What were you doing at the Moroccan Embassy?” But Jimbo and Lono P shouted me down, demanding more information about the jazz festival, a potential Event for the evening.

It was some kind of informal thing spread all over the Village. We had only to get our asses down there, then schmooze around from bar to bar, catching the latest riffs of a 70-year-old musical style that was fading fast into the loathsome triple-Z funk now found on most Los Angeles FM radio stations. As an Event, the Village jazz festival offered enormous potential for severe psychological and physiological self-abuse on so many levels it made my head reel. It was exactly what we needed to pull ourselves out of our brooding pre-show despondency, and I could feel my adrenal gland quickly escalating chemical production in anticipation of the evening’s promised outrages, winding me into a hormone-crazed knot. I wanted to know when we were leaving and Stagg yelled, “Soon! Soon! When my friends get here,” then ordered another White Russian. We all fell then to angry complaining about the state of modern popular music, and also why it was that Republican administrations seemed lately (since 1968) to find it necessary to staff themselves with thugs, gangsters, blackmailers and other criminals, becoming executive-level goon squads of violent hustlers and extortionists.

Before too long the discourse degraded into a shouting match between Jimbo and Stagg about the weirdest and most dangerous places either of them had ever “done it.” By this time I was so far gone I had only a groping shadow of an idea of what they were saying, but it was still a very good show, with Stagg constantly leaping up and thrusting his chin into Jimbo’s face, shouting vulgar points of view at the top of his lungs. Jimbo would hop to his feet and scream back at him, then both of them would pound on the tiny plastic table and scatter tasty Marriott cheese crackers all over the place. Somehow, Lono P and I found the proceedings immensely entertaining and hilarious, because both of us were whooping and screaming (“Ha, ha, HACK, CHACK, WHEEZE, HACK, HACK!!”) and slapping our drinks around, offering absurd suggestions and arcane historical references as loudly as possible.

One by one the tables adjacent to ours emptied of patrons, so Lono P and I seized the vacant chairs for use as footstools and finished off the dregs of the abandoned drinks and delicious Marriott cheese crackers. Soon my wife showed up at the Broadway Lounge, and Stagg immediately went upstairs to his room to eat some powerful drugs. My wife sat down and ordered some iced tea or a coke or something, acted as if she was offended by our antics and conversation, and was roundly ignored by all of us for the rest of the evening.

By this time Jimbo and I were teary-eyed, screaming at each other about an especially funny all-night overtime session at IPG, an Orange County photo lab where we both once worked with Stagg. The core of this side-splitting tale was a nonsense song we made up that night when we were 17 mind-numbing hours into our shifts, delirious with fatigue, about nose-hairs. Naturally a stirring rendition of this rousing ballad was in order, for the benefit of the remaining patrons of the Broadway Lounge, so we stood up and lit into it at excessively high volume, smashing our drinks together and strewing alcohol and ice everywhere, while Lono P coughed his rattly laugh and watched the inert walls of the bar slide silently by.

Presently, after three or four goes at the Nose-Hair Song, I spotted Stagg making his glittery-eyed way through the eighth floor lobby towards us, so I grabbed Lono P’s shoulder, hissing, “The tab, get the tab!” I pulled Jimbo with me as I stepped over a chair, upsetting the table and the residue of our revelries, and Stagg staggered through the scattered bar patrons to the entrance to the Broadway Lounge. I had to step over a few seated people, but this was okay since I stand about 6’5″ tall, even drunk. Jimbo tried to follow my steps over the chairs, but he fell over them instead, and it was taking us a lot longer to get to Stagg than I thought it should have. Suddenly it seemed that the revolving bar was picking up speed, and I had to get off it at once, before it was too late. I panicked, left Jimbo to his own fate, and began falling over people myself, tall as I am, screaming, “Sorry! Sorry!! Look out,” making my way as quickly as possible to the narrowing entrance before I was cut off, or worse, cut in half by the glass wall of the revolving bar as it caught me in the gap after a horrible alcohol-induced miscalculation. It was like a bad dream, shoving my way through outraged drinkers in a do-or-die race with the revolving glass wall (which, I learned the next day, was actually connected to the stationary part of the wall and didn’t move at all), until I finally reeled across the gap to Stagg, clutched onto him and began shouting, “Lono P’s still in there! We gotta get Lono P out!”

“It’s okay,” said Stagg, “He’s with your wife.”

“Never mind my wife, I wept, “Who’s gonna pay for the drinks?”

“To hell with that,” said Jimbo as he wobbled off the treacherous spinning bar, “Where’s this jazz festival?”

“We’re ready to go,” replied Stagg, brushing me off his body, “But first I have to introduce my two buddies.” He waved his arm towards two more huge guys standing a couple yards off, evaluating the scene for themselves, and introduced them as Dan Something and Rodney Okay, a couple of dangerous drug-eaters Stagg knew from his college days. I looked down at their feet and noticed they were both hovering several inches off the floor, then nudged Jimbo silently and pointed at the phenomenon. Stagg said it was okay, Dan and Rodney had just come back from an intense three-hour mushroom-gobbling session at Columbia University, so there really wasn’t anything to worry about. In fact, Stagg was more concerned about Jimbo and myself, and said we both looked ready to erupt into senseless and spontaneous violence at any moment. “I think it would be far too hazardous to allow you guys to ride with Dan and Rodney in a taxi,” he said, “We’ll have to take the subway.”

We slipped through the Times Square throngs like a band of tall pin-striped guerrillas, occasionally knocking over flimsy Three Card Monty tables and treading upon the counterfeit watches spread on the sidewalk. We were bewildered by the subway station itself, and would probably be staggering around down there still if we hadn’t been assisted to our platform by a little gnome of a man from Queens. We sniggered over the tokens and took turns holding onto Lono P, who was leaning out over the tracks to feel the wind on his face. When our train came we piled into it like drunken sailors, which we were halfway on our ways to becoming.

There was a frightened-looking middle-aged Puerto Rican man sitting across from me. Jimbo got up and grabbed his dingy plaid shirt, shouting, “How about that Bernie Goetz? Now there’s a guy who means business! Carries a gun onto the subway, great!” Jimbo’s face was inches away from the man’s own, and he swayed as the train bumped over the tracks, gripping the poor bastard’s shirt to remain standing. He continued, “Are you packing? I am!” He motioned to the rest of us, “We all are! I’ve gotta Colt Python .45 automatic in my coat pocket.” He began to shout out into the car at large, “My buddy Stagg over there’s carrying three CS tear gas grenades.” He suddenly seized the Puerto Rican, who looked pale and very near death, with his other hand. “You can never be too careful,” he leered, “These subways are teeming with pimps and dagos.”

Then Rodney Okay jumped up and said, “Here’s our stop,” and grabbed Jimbo away from the man, while my wife grumbled, “Thank God,” or something to that effect. Stagg was busy whisking what he thought were big green spiders from his shirt, muttering, “Where’d these goddamned spiders come from?” while Dan Something sat with his eyes screwed shut and his teeth bared and I bitched about the rancid subway smell to Lono P, who giggled distractedly.

We got off the subway in Soho somewhere, where the clean straight streets and avenues of Central Manhattan mutate into the mangled chaos of Greenwich Village, the Bowery, and Wall Street. On the sidewalk outside the subway station Jimbo spotted a small cigar stand, so we all rushed in and ogled over the display of luscious Caribbean cheroots. Everyone except Lono P and my wife bought swollen overpriced stogies. The unctuous Cuban who ran the shop assured me that the five-dollar selection I picked out was “hand-rolled on the warm brown thighs of Dominican virgins.” We lit up and proceeded into the Village followed by an eye-watering cloud of acrid cigar smoke.

The first Jazz Festival bar we came to had a ten dollar cover charge, so we moved on down the street. Before long it became evident that all the Jazz Festival bars were all demanding outrageous cover charges, and the only way we were going to hear any jazz was if we all broke down and forked over at least ten bucks apiece, which we couldn’t charge to our employers because we wouldn’t get receipts. Then there was the hideous prices such places would charge for drinks to consider. Our beleaguered minds boggled.

Finally we came to a place that wanted fifteen dollars per person just to get in. Because my wife was along, it would have cost me thirty smacks. “You crazy greedheads!” I shouted at the gigantic Italian bouncer who was manning the door, “Are you out of your goddamned minds? Thirty bucks! You filthy swine, you shit-eating vermin!” I was really pissed off, “Where’s your goddamned manager, you ugly wop?” Stagg pulled me away from the bouncer while Jimbo started shouting, “Who the hell you calling a wop, you bastard, I’m a goddamned wop!” and Lono P and my wife proceeded down the street pretending they weren’t with us. A half-block away I was still shouting, “Thirty bucks! The fascist reptiles! Who do they think they are? To hell with these jazz bastards, let’s go get something to drink.”

We found a nearby bar populated with students or some similar such swine in dress shirts and jeans, and their vapid-looking women with names like Babs and Bootsy. These sorry young scions didn’t like the looks of us at all, but we ignored them and found a small table in a corner near the window. Lono P went up to the bar, hawked loudly, let out a resonant belch, and ordered two rounds of drinks for us while Rodney Okay marauded around the tavern in search of empty chairs. Stagg was beginning to feel extremely violent, and was thinking of maybe going back to the last place and stomping that huge bouncer. Naturally, I encouraged him, but Jimbo got nervous and said something about there being a Raiders game on that night. Stagg suddenly swung around to Jimbo and yelled, “What? The Raiders? Good gibbering God, that’s right, it’s Sunday night!” He stood up and shouted at the bartender, “Hey, where’s the goddamned TV around here?” to which the bartender, a man of refinement, answered, “Go lick a dog’s ass till it bleeds, dickhead.” Stagg was about to leap over the table to go for the bartender when Lono P appeared suddenly at the table with an armful of alcohol. Stagg seized a White Russian and knocked it back at once, then called out, “Yo, Pituitary, see if these uncultured Yankee bastards have any Anchor Steam!”

Of course, the uncultured Yankee bastards had never heard of Anchor Steam, so after we consumed our second round of drinks Stagg hissed, “Let’s blow this dive.” We all immediately got up from our chairs, but Dan Something moved too fast and fell backwards in his, grabbing for support some insipid coed who was sitting behind him. She went down with him, but not before she kicked over the table at which she and three dopey girlfriends were engaged in spirited argument about whether Cher or Meryl Steep was the greatest actress who ever lived. The three girls shrieked as their beers splashed over them, while the first girl gurgled in surprise and Lono P said, “Hey!” Most of the nearby students jumped up out of their seats. In a moment the refined bartender was making his way around the end of the bar and Stagg reached down to help up Dan Something, who was slipping in the beer and grabbing onto the coed’s left breast in a sloppy attempt at getting any purchase at all. She began to squawk and Lono P kept saying “Hey!” Jimbo took sudden command of the situation and hurled my wife and Rodney Okay towards the door, then bent down and grabbed Dan Something, who had mistaken Stagg for Alabama Governor George Wallace and was fighting him off, shouting “You racist bastard, get your bloody hands off me!” I helped Jimbo get Dan Something to his feet when Stagg suddenly noticed the bartender coming toward us. He shoved a nearby student over a table as a diversion and pushed the rest of us out the door. On the sidewalk, Lono P was sniggering and giggling like a lunatic, and we pulled him with us as we ran down the street and around a corner.

[Editor’s Note: At this juncture, Mitch’s narrative becomes confused and disjointed, reflecting, perhaps, his extremely advanced state of inebriation by this point in the proceedings. As far as can be determined for certain, the Gang got tossed out of two more bars after Jimbo and Stagg began ordering really dangerous things like tequila and rum, before settling into a place called The Peculiar Pub. There they all watched the Raiders game while drinking a stupendously vile Zimbabwean beer, and Jimbo would bet everyone at the bar on the outcome of each Raiders drive. There also seems to have been an incident near Washington Arch involving a cantaloupe, since at one point Stagg clearly screams, “No you sick bastards, not with the goddamned cantaloupe!” though it is not at all clear what activity Stagg was protesting. The coherent portion of the narrative resumes with Mitch’s reflections on the night of horror, from the vantage of the following morning in his hotel.]

I awoke from the Great Greenwich Village Pub Crawl of 1987 snug in my bed at the Marriott Marquis, 32 floors above Times Square. Amazingly, I was not hung over, owing principally to my abstinence the night before from any chemicals or substances stronger than vodka and tonic water, neither of which cause hangovers in me. I rose, belched, showered, dressed, and went downstairs to meet Lono P in the Howard Johnson’s across 45th Street for breakfast, only slightly more bleary-eyed than usual.

I got off very lightly. The last I remembered seeing of Jimbo was outside the Peculiar Pub, when he jumped onto the passenger side of our cab as my wife and I sped away. A post-mortem of the Event proved that was also just about the last thing Jimbo himself remembered of the evening. He recalls only obscene murky fragments of scenes of further depredation, then waking up the next morning staring up at the drain-pipe of an unfamiliar bathroom sink in the Sheraton on 7th Avenue. His mouth tasted like Drano, his body felt as if he had been viciously stomped by a gang of speed-crazed Malaysian kick-boxers, and the white of one eye was a deep and solid crimson. “It was that beer,” he still raves, “It was virulent poison.” He crept painfully out of the strange hotel room and endured a brutal and debilitating hangover for the next 48 hours.

We never heard from Stagg after that, until early in 1988 when I received a postcard from Penang informing us that he had relocated from Sumatra to Kuala Lumpur.

Comdex Crossing 1990

It is a weird feeling to sit in a Las Vegas hotel at four in the morning — hunkered down with a notebook and tape recorder in a $75-a-day suite and a fantastic room service bill, run up in forty-eight hours of total madness — knowing that just as soon as dawn comes up you are going to flee without paying a fucking penny . . . go stomping out through the lobby and call your red convertible down from the garage and stand there waiting for it with a suitcase full of marijuana and illegal weapons . . . trying to look casual, scanning the first morning edition of the Las Vegas Sun.

– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Indeed. Doctor of Journalism Hunter Thompson understood it all and understood it well over twenty years ago when he wrote those lines. The Weird Feeling. The insensate fear and lunacy to which even the best and the brightest succumb after forty-eight or more hours in Old Cibola, after as much as a week given to shameless and degrading activities in the modern Babylon, a City of Light in the forsaken Wilderness, the malingering Las Vegas, at America’s own annual carnival of technology, the outrageous November bacchanal known as Comdex.

For Comdex 1990 I had hoped to organize a debauched and disgusting pre-show “Nobody Escape the Damnation” party, a wild, substance-induced casino crawl up and down the Strip in commemorative t-shirts and a rented convertible, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons. There was just no other way to do Comdex. Saturday the week before the show I faxed Stagg Meander in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Stagg Meander, Net.D, beer-swilling, cheroot-smoking International Network Guerilla and co-conspirator in previous years’ Comdex degradation, is a pretty colorful fellow, with a fairly colorful résumé which I simply can’t take the time to get into here. Suffice to say that years ago he took over my old job as Computer Graphics Art Director at the Orange County color lab where worked in the early Eighties, and later ended up in Southeast Asia installing networks for small dudes in short-sleeved dress shirts and drab ties who were really nervous about having an uncontrollable maniac like him in their office, but who knew they couldn’t afford not to hire him because he’s really one of the best of his kind in that part of the world.

Stagg’s lucrative international computer consulting business is based for tax reasons on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, and I manage to connect with him several times a year, at the major US and European computer trade shows.

When I contacted him in October he was installing a Banyan VINES system for Malaysian prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s UMNO party. He responded to my fax at 2:00 the next morning with a phone call: “Wake up you lazy pig,” he screamed in his contorted mutant voice which sounded like a cross between Orson Welles and William F. Buckley on heroin, “Your fax came just in time! It’s hot as hell down here and I’m getting a lot of shit from the local Micropolis distributor. The bastard supports the Islam party and won’t sell me any drives. I’m gonna have to smuggle some in from Thailand again. Shit, I’m always doing that!”

“You sound busy,” I said groggily, “Are you sure you have the time?”

“We’re talking about Comdex, right? Besides, Mahathir’s just won another goddamn election and everyone’s gone completely apeshit bananas. Plus, I’ve been getting the usual threatening faxes from the defeated opposition, so it’s a good time to vamoose. Those UMNO yo-yos will be so busy celebrating their victory and settling scores with opposition supporters, it’ll be months before they realize the Banyan system is still down. Hey,” he continued, “I gotta tell you about this VINES setup –”

“We don’t have time for that,” I said, sitting up in the darkness, “How soon can you be here?”

“Well, I gotta stop for a couple days in Kabul, to submit a bid for an eighty-node SFT system, with laser printers. It’s a real bitch because Afghanistan’s still on the COCOM list, they can’t get any equipment at all.” I heard him typing on a computer keyboard, then the sound of a modem dialing out. “I’ve gotta set up a delivery route via Holland, Finland and the Soviet Union, figure 30% loss due to pilferage along the way. I might need some extra time in case the mujaheddin are shelling the airport again. Let’s see, in, out, then to Berlin for a couple days.”

“Berlin? Do you really think you have time for that?”

“Why not? All roads lead to Frankfurt in this modern age, and Berlin’s a quick hop from there. I gotta clear some little things up with Joachim Gauck’s Stasi-dissolution committee. There’s a couple files I need to get my hands on before the new German government does. Just to avoid a little embarrassment I don’t need right now, you understand.”

“Of course. Lots of Germans are doing the same thing.”

“Right. So that’s maybe four, five more days, including travel time. Yeah, I can be at LAX in a week. I’ll send a fax from Potsdam when I know the details.”

“Great, that’ll be just in time. I figure we’ll go in Friday night. I’m unemployed this year so my time is my own.”

“By the way, I wanna set up a hospitality suite at the Flamingo Hilton to entertain some prospects from Bophuthatswana and a guy from Uzbekistan. Do we have a vehicle?”

“No sweat, it’s the Marauding White Honda.”

The 1988 Marauding White Honda Civic DX Hatchback had been purchased and outfitted for just this kind of insane high-speed run across the state. I had it stripped to bare essentials, 1.6 liter sixteen-valve electronic fuel injection, lightened flywheel (to 12.5 pounds), Jackson Racing header, Lightspeed center pipe, custom rear muffler exiting on right side, four-wheel independent suspension, H&R race springs, Tokico 5-way front shocks (these were real crap, actually), Koni adjustable rear shocks, Suspension Tech front sway bar, Lightspeed rear sway bar, forged rear lower control arms, Neuspeed front upper tie bar, custom rear upper & lower tie bars (with adjustable front and rear camber), Performance Friction carbon front pads, semi metallic rear shoes, Wilwood brake proportioning valve, five-speed stick and Si trans and clutch, a stock shifter welded for 40% shorter throw, Momo Montecarlo wheel, Sabelt harness, Si instrument cluster, cloth seats and black-tinted glass; no stereo and no air conditioning.

“Shit,” he yelped, “After last year’s fiasco you wanna go back in there in the same fucking car! Are you outta your goddamned mind?” The previous year’s “fiasco” was a 25-minute firefight with a 300E-load of drunken Daewoo hardware engineers right on the Strip. “This time they’ll probably use anti-tank weapons on us!” Indeed. No less a source than Jim Seymour himself swears the Governor was just five minutes from ordering a full napalm assault just to clear us out, get traffic moving again. The fat man should know, he’s been jacked into the Vegas scene for years, ever since he got them for nearly $2.5 million at the first Comdex/Fall, playing Baccarat and calculating the odds on a CP/M-based Osborne disguised as a respirator.

“Relax,” I said, “I just had the Marauding White Honda fitted with a false bottom, and the Bandini brothers threw in solid tires and bulletproof glass for half-price. Besides, we’re going in light this time. No heavy arms.”

“Can you even get anything in California anymore?” he asked. “I’ve been reading the English-language papers in Singapore. If there’s anything you need, let me know and I can make a quick trip to Bangkok, get some of that shit coming in from the Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai border, real broken-in Khmer Rouge stuff –”

“Hey,” I said, “We don’t need any of that, I want to take it easy this year. But I’ll call Jimbo and see what he can do, just to make you happy. And fax through what you need for the hospitality suite.”

Immediately after hanging up on Stagg I called Jimbo. “Dude!” I shouted into the receiver, “Stagg Meander’s coming to Comdex!”

“Shit! With that swine in town we’ll be fucked for sure!” Jimbo had had a very bad experience with Stagg in 1988 in a topless bar in Atlanta, and never really forgave the man for it. “Hey, isn’t Interpol still looking for that bastard for shipping those Swiss pocket modems to the KGB? I don’t need that kind of shit right now. Remember, I’ve got a real job now, and my credit is just about back to normal . . .”

“Quit whining,” I demanded, “He beat that rap a long time ago. Besides, nobody can prove it was him, and it was only the KGB Resident in San Francisco. There’s no law against shipping shit to San Francisco. Not yet. Hey, look, are you still connected? Stagg seems to feel this Comdex might get ugly.”

“Yeah, I can handle it,” he muttered, “Just shove the shopping list into the fax. Anything I can’t get here we can pick up in Vegas. There’s a place off Spring Valley Road which rents out machine guns for Christ’s sake, so there’s no problem with that. But you’re responsible for transportation. I’m not riding with that maniac. I’m flying to Vegas.”

“Fine,” I said, “No worries.”

The mujaheddin were quiet that week, and Frankfurt’s gnarled air-traffic control mess was no worse than usual, so Stagg arrived at LAX without serious incident Thursday night. Friday noon found us loitering around my office apartment south of Los Angeles, waiting for the Post Office to deliver Express Mail a case of Moët champagne, and we couldn’t begin to make our move until almost three o’clock in the afternoon.

In preparation for the hospitality suite, the car was loaded with bourbon, Scotch, gin, vodka, tequila, rum, sipping whiskey, brandy, schnapps, aquavit, sake, Kahlua, Southern Comfort, Bailey’s Irish Bristol Creme, hard cider, chablis, chardonnay, sangria, white zinfandel, burgundy, port, warm jug wine, Asti Spumante, Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, eleven different varieties of beer, ale, lager and light beer, tonic, club soda, ginger ale, Coca-Cola Classic, Diet Coke, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, root beer, Orange Crush, potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips, Triscuits, Ritz crackers, stoned wheat crackers, table water crackers, peanuts, trail mix, M&Ms, bean dip, onion dip, guacamole dip, cream cheese, lemons, limes, paper cups, plastic cups, styrofoam cups, napkins, and, in case of emergencies, a supply of penicillin. Plus a week’s luggage for two men, two portable computers, a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle under the folded-down rear seats, a six-inch Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, a black PC Magazine kit bag with 400 assorted rounds of .223, .38, and .357 caliber ammunition, my Wenger Delemont “Tinker” Swiss Army knife, and a heavy carton containing three reams of cryptic press releases Stagg had copied at Dulles Airport. I also stowed an envelope containing $4,200 in hundreds and fifties, my gambling money for the week.

After loading, there was just enough room in the car to accommodate Stagg and me in the front seats. The rear tires very nearly touched the fender, and trying to slow the damned car down once it got going was an adventure. There was very little traction in the front (drive) wheels, so handling was comparable to that of a 1963 Volkswagen Micro Bus with the tires inflated to 250 psi pulling a house trailer. I mused uneasily about our chances of making it over Cajon Pass.

By this time the temperature had climbed to 87ºF, very unusual for November, and it would be worse out upon the sands. I knew it would be irrational to pit our frail selves against the desert in these conditions. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait any longer, we simply had to get out of the basin and on our way to Vegas whatever the consequences. Keep moving. All this lingering around over a case of champagne was making us both nervous. Finally Stagg, taking charge of the situation, said, “To hell with it. Do we have all the rest of the liquor?” I nodded solemnly. “Then let’s get out of here. If we need anything else we’ll call and have it Fed-Exed out.”

“Maybe we should wait until the traffic clears up,” I suggested, “It’s going to be unattenuated chaos getting out to Riverside right now.”

Stagg considered this for a moment. “You mean go to the Goat Hill Tavern and drink until about nine o’clock, then drive at top speed all the way up through Cajon Pass?” he mused, “It has possibilities. But I think the most important thing right now is to get this vehicle onto the freeway absolutely as soon as possible, then move among the commuters, for camouflage. There’s simply too much at risk, Comdex starts in only three days.”

His arguments were, of course, irrefutable. Las Vegas was over 200 miles away across the most forbidding desert in the Western Hemisphere, a harsh, unforgiving land where the weak or careless were easy prey for rednecked sheriff’s deputies and carnivorous lizards alike. No place for two sun-crazed computer hacks in a Honda Civic Hatchback without air conditioning. Electronic fuel injection and four-wheel independent suspension would be of little use under these ominous circumstances; our only hope was to join the nightly stream from LA to Vegas, racing the confused, middle class runaways who inexplicably abandon their families and careers while driving home from work, bypass their off-ramps, then keep on going, clear out past Barstow to Death Valley, never to be heard from again. Match speed with these hopeless bastards, then veer straight down I-15 as they turn off at Baker, the worst safely behind us.

“And if we really can’t handle the situation,” I said, producing a triple-A freeway map with every freewayside McDonald’s location between Irvine and Victorville marked with dark green ink, “We can always pull off for a rest and some Big Macs.”

Though Stagg appreciated my careful research and preparations (the map would come in very handy), he wanted to squelch any defeatist sentiments before they gained a foothold in our already exhausted minds. “In case of emergency only,” he qualified.

But it transpired that the sun was simply not an issue. Leaving at three o’clock that Friday afternoon, it took us two hours to reach the outskirts of Riverside and the interchange with Interstate 15. Fortified by two Big Macs, two large orders of french fries, twenty Chicken McNuggets, and regular withdrawals from the Igloo ice chest full of San Miguel beer between Stagg’s feet, we approached Cajon Pass as the sun set.

I had made this run in overstuffed Japanese cars many times before, so I knew the best way to attempt the Pass: Give yourself a good five to ten miles in fifth gear to generate the necessary speed, say eighty or ninety miles per hour, then maintain that speed as far up the Pass as possible, downshifting as required to hump it over Cajon Summit, finally roaring into Victorville at 7,500 rpms in third gear. Any failure to maintain escape velocity condemned you instantly to a humiliating thirteen-mile-per-hour crawl up the right-hand lane. I attempted this technique at great risk to life and limb, as the other drivers simply were not cooperating. I was forced to weave willy-nilly amongst the commuters, shifting wildly between fourth and fifth gear while we crossed the murderous San Andreas Fault.

Stagg was alert for signs of California Highway Patrol 5.0 liter Mustangs, but it hardly mattered, since no Highway Patrolman in his right mind would dare to pull over a dangerously overloaded Honda Civic at the foot of Cajon Pass. In fact, I was counting on one or two of them to provide blocking protection. I was far more worried about sociopathic deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, a creepy hotbed of dangerous atavistic jingoism.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are those goddamn animals?”

– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The Crossing was smooth and uneventful, and three hours out of Victorville we were racing down the mountain into the painful incandescence of the Whiskey Pete’s, Primadonna and Kactus Kate’s casino complexes which marked the Nevada border. An hour later, we were cruising down Flamingo Road, across the Strip to Paradise.

Traffic on the Strip was Las Vegas Ugly, the typical blend of automotive ineptitude and breezy unconsciousness, with most cars moving along at a brisk (by Vegas standards) seven miles per hour. I was severely handicapped by the pathetic handling of my normally spry Honda, and I very nearly splattered several oblivious motorists who neglected to take the Civic’s overcorpulent condition seriously.

As usual, the pedestrians spilled out onto the Strip like confused termites, reeling, apparently, from ruthless hammerings at the craps tables, and Stagg was obliged to lean out of the window and shout them down as we wove awkwardly by. At the intersection with Paradise, while we were waiting for the left turn arrow, Stagg lunged behind my seat, ratting about for something under my forest green Land’s End sweater. My blood ran cold as I realized exactly what he was searching for; the .357 Magnum. “You son of a bitch!” I shouted, “I paid $600 for that thing! You flash it around here, three blocks from the Strip, and they’ll take it away. I’ll never see it again.”

“Are you crazy?” he said, “This is Nevada! They’ll put you away and flush the key just for transporting these weapons into the State.”

“What’s wrong with the .357?”

“It’s not the .357, it’s that assault rifle under the back seat. If the local fascists find your California semi-auto they’ll tear you to shreds. What do you think’s gonna happen when five of those sadistic Clark County Sheriff’s Deputies catch you and your wimpy Ruger with full-auto permanently disabled? They’ll pummel you to death with their MAC-10s!”

He was right. Still, I preferred some armament to none, especially in this town, especially when I considered the fate of the junketing Baton Rouge Montgomery Ward assistant sales manager who, during the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show, was beaten to death with a 99-cent half-pound hot dog outside the Slots-o-Fun casino by an enraged acid-casualty from Mendocino. Surely, even a semi-automatic assault rifle was more than a match for a 99-cent half-pound hot dog, or was it? “Maybe we should have brought the Uzi,” I suggested.

“Who can afford 9mm ammo anymore?” said Stagg, “Anyway, forget about it. We’re almost to the motel.”

The desk at the Best Western Mardi Gras Inn on Paradise, a block away from the Convention Center, was staffed at night by a pretty teen-aged thing, apparently overwhelmed by the mounting Comdex traffic and obviously alarmed by the prospect of two paranoid and dehydrated computer fiends loping into the lobby. Stagg demanded a room with a view, “It is essential that we overlook the Las Vegas Country Club,” he said from behind his Ray-Ban Wayfarers, “We are professionals.”

This impressed the girl, and we were given the key to a room on the third floor. Stagg looked at her again through his Wayfarers and said, “Hey, you’re too pretty for this kind of work.” He flipped a card in front of her “When you want to see the world, fax me.”

“Hey,” she said, frowning at the card, “This is all in Arabic.”

“Hey, turn it over, it’s English on the other side,” said Stagg, and when she did I could see an address in Damascus and the name “Stagg Meander, Love Merchant.”

“Hey,” said the girl again, but I was already moving, and Stagg muttered, “Let’s get out of here before she calls the manager. I’d hate to have to kill him.”

When we got to the room Stagg ran straight into the bathroom and cranked up the shower to full heat, then hung all his shirts on the curtain rod. “Hey, these don’t look so bad,” he said, waving aloft a hopelessly mangled robin’s egg blue banker’s pinpoint, “They’ve been in that suitcase since my trip to Somalia last June.”

While Stagg rummaged through his bags, I hid the weapons, replacing the ammunition in the black PC Magazine kit bag with several Diego Garcia cigars, a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft and other essentials. I heard Stagg in the bathroom, submerging his face in the basin, then hawking and spitting noisily into the bowl. When he finally came tramping out, I said, “Let’s go play some blackjack.”

We left the shower on and took the bloated Civic down to the Tropicana. The Trop security thugs eyed the PC Magazine kit bag suspiciously as we moved among the tables, looking for a hot one with the third base seat open. Stagg was looking natty in the Ray-Bans, khaki chinos, silk shirt, paratrooper boots and fruity beret; I was wearing a coordinating Land’s End ensemble highlighted by our famous blue “Nobody Escapes” long-sleeve t-shirt.

While we were playing cards, two obvious Comdexers sat down at the table and began splitting tens, Dave Maxwell and Phil Stacks of DigiMag, an exhibiting company in the tape-backup business. Although the other players were muttering and getting up from the table, these two guys were having the time of their lives; it was apparently the first Comdex they had ever attended and, judging by the way they played blackjack, their first time in Las Vegas. Stagg and I decided to befriend these pathetic bastards, forcing cigars onto them and advising them about what to hit and what not to hit. After about twenty hands, the four of us were hooting and shouting, when suddenly Stagg decided we needed to go to the Hilton at once, to see if there was anybody there we knew. We exchanged business cards with Dave and Phil and left the Trop.

The Hilton itself was very busy, and Stagg and I were sodomized brutally, losing hundreds of dollars within minutes. “This place is very heavy,” said Stagg, and since we couldn’t find anyone we knew, we drove a block down Paradise back to the Mardi Gras Inn. We lifted a few Jamaican Red Stripes out of the Honda and sucked on them in our room while watching the last bits of a tit movie on HBO.

The next morning we parked in the Convention Center lot and wandered over to the registration tent with the black PC Magazine kit bag, this time filled with Anchor Steam beers. We needed exhibitor badges so we could roam the halls during setup, networking like iguanas and making valuable pre-show contacts.

The registration tent was almost empty, as it usually is two days before the opening of the show, when we sauntered up to the “D” window at the exhibitor registration desk. We presented the business cards we had picked up the night before and walked back out of the tent with Dave and Phil’s exhibitor badges.

I must admit, I really enjoy all the pre-show Convention Center activity. The hall is always a mess, with machinery and crates and equipment strewn all over the place, exhibitors screaming at carpenters and at each other, forklifts careening around corners at frightening speeds, the smell of sweat and motor exhaust and, yes, fear. That crazy, numbing fear that grips so many exhibitors as they board their planes to Vegas, which never quite lets go until Monday at noon when the show is on and it’s far too late to worry about lost opportunities. Then they binge like drunken Finns, ignoring the whines and complaints from their salesman who arrive Sunday night, well after the crest of the pre-show madness.

Most exhibitors spend the weekend squawking at the Greyhound Exposition decorators or drinking beer in their booths with Giltspur carpenters. Higher-level dudes delegate the booth set-up to their techies and marketing communications girls and schmooze their way around the hall in polo shirts and Rockport Walkers, just as Stagg and I were doing.

Stagg needed to call his girlfriend in Malaysia, so we walked into what was to become one of the two Microsoft booths. Stagg asked a carpenter, “Say, where’s the phone around here?” and he directed us towards an information counter near the center of the booth, beside a workstation with a techie who was working on Microsoft Excel. Stagg waved at the techie, whose badge said Craig Something. “Hi, Craig,” Stagg said as he dialed the city code for Kuala Lumpur. Craig nodded back morosely, mentally pegging us, no doubt, as some marketing snakes from the Languages Group, and clearly uninterested in anything Stagg had to say on the phone.

After Stagg spoke to Slippery Jo in Kuala Lumpur for about ten minutes, we worked our way around the hall, meeting old friends and making new ones, collecting party invites, and trading most of the beer in the PC Magazine kit bag for t-shirts, hand-held modems, and software samples. Finally, Stagg decided that we ought to go back to the Hilton, to try to get some of our own back from the night before and maybe see some of the college games at the sports book, so we worked our way back through the hall.

On the way out Stagg remembered that he wanted to stop by Hewlett-Packard to pick up a DeskJet, so we detoured by the HP booth, where he asked the first HPer we saw, “So who’s got the DeskJets?” We were sent over to a harried young girl presiding over a ragged sheet of paper with a list of names and companies. Stagg smiled toothily through his beard and said, “I’m Stagg Meander, from WordPerfect, here to pick up our DeskJet.”

“We don’t have you on the list,” the girl said, glancing uneasily at the paper in her hand.

“That’s okay,” he soothed, “Audry didn’t know we needed one until last week. Do you have any to spare?”

She regarded a stack of cartons behind her. “We only have one more.”

“One will be fine,” Stagg said as he hefted the remaining DeskJet. “Do you have any RAM or font cartridges? And I’ll need a parallel cable.”

She found a cable, a meg of RAM and a couple of font cartridges, and I put them in my PC Magazine kit bag. Then I offered her the last Anchor Steam. “It’s a little warm, but you look like you could use a break,” I said, smiling, reminding myself how revolting Anchor Steam tastes when it gets the least bit warm.

She grinned lethargically as she accepted the beer and said, “Thanks a lot. Have a good show.”

“You have a good show too,” said Stagg as he walked off carrying the DeskJet.

At the security desk next to the hall entrance I piled the DeskJet, RAM, fonts and cable in front of the nice old lady guard while Stagg meticulously filled out the equipment pass. Then he gave the pass to the lady with Dave Maxwell’s exhibitor badge. As she ran the pass through the imprinter Stagg shook his head wearily, muttering, “Comdex/Fall, shit. Nobody escapes the damnation.”

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