It's Saturday night in the city: Cranked-up ravers spill out of abandoned warehouses on East Grand; blue-jeaned white Zinfandelers cruise franchised bars searching for sing-along acoustic music; somewhere, lovers touch hands and whisper.
I'm sitting in a futuristic/medieval-themed basement bluffing with a pair of deuces as my poker companions drink dyed-black Mountain Dew (what they call "hee-ki-JIK" and pronounce with a Klingon tongue cluck).
One is wearing an exceptionally long-billed baseball hat which reads — and I'm not making this up — "Mine is bigger than yours." Two are racing to stack their poker chips into a double helix.
My heart is thumping from the caffeine and all I can think is I don't want to die here — not in this sparkle-ceilinged cavern among tinfoil suits of armor and life-sized, cardboard cutouts of Seven Of Nine — mainly because I don't know what these nerds might do to my body. ("Let's verify that a human's small intestine is 6 meters long." "Let's see if we can revive him through the first USB-neuron interface.")
These are not my regular friends. These are not anybody's regular friends. They would have, 10 years ago, rightfully been called geeks. While the term previously referred to those physically and socially awkward, fringe-of-society techno-nerds, "geek" has now been bastardized self-descriptively by anyone with glasses and more than 32 megs of RAM. All computer programmers call themselves geeks. Data-entry slaves call themselves geeks. Firemen and stunt pilots want to be called geeks. Some of the world's elite athletes wear horn-rimmed glasses. Geek, now, is chic.
These guys, though, are throwbacks to the founders of the original Geekdom, from which modern "geeks" de/evolved.
These, then, are today's SuperGeeks.
I met "Dan" (he won't let me use his real name) 15 or so years ago. I was a high-school freshman dating his nongeek sister back then; he was a frail, pale, 6-foot-4 senior souping up a Commodore 64 in his basement. Today, he is a computer programmer ("Our MIS department operates in mixed mainframe and VB. But I'm multiplatform, a lot of MicroFocus COBOL") in Birmingham. He brags about 20-hour work days lost in a blink of "super programming."
Dan is a bit of a medium between the two cultures, stepping gingerly between the worlds of Linux and conversations with women in common social settings. He drives a 1986 Horizon with a quarter turn of slack in the steering wheel — his constant, sudden arm movements make him look like a maniac behind the wheel.
I tell him about this story — ask if I can hang out with him for a few days — and he's neither surprised nor offended at being called a SuperGeek.
"I recognize how I am perceived by others," he says. "But some of my friends may not employ the same self-realization. They may, in fact, perceive you in a negative light. They may not want to associate with you."
Dan four-pointed through four years of high school. He set bell curves, got picked last for floor hockey. At Michigan Tech, he tanked his last class, taking a 'C' in geography. He did it intentionally, so goes the rumor, to get out of the valedictorian's speech.
"They wouldn't want to be around me?" I ask. Unwanted by the unwanted, shunned by the shunned. "I'm good at math," pleadingly. "Pretty good at chess. I can program" (albeit in BASIC).
"Not you specifically," he lies. "But geeks see nongeeks as trivial and self-serving. They certainly don't strive, like you imply, to be like you. They see your kind as pop-star wannabes comprised of more style than substance."
He tells his friends I'm his cousin. I lose the bluff and the pot — $20 — and Randy and Ken snicker at my "telltale bluff sign."
"It's not your fault," says Randy, a balding 39-year-old Detroiter with layers of pilled lint suspended in his Blackbeardlike beard. "It's just human nature. And we simply applied some basic scientific principles to your actions."
I ask Randy if he's seeing anyone. "Do you mean have I found 'that perfect match?'" he says. He speaks in a forced, deliberate style like some high schooler trying to keep puberty's squeaks deep in the throat.
"Let us hypothesize for argument's sake there is such thing as a 'perfect match.' Let us presume that person would be someone with whom you would never fight or disagree with about anything. They would love you no matter what other people thought of you. There are 6.1 billion people on Earth, and that is just today. What if your perfect match was born in a different time period? People who say there is such a thing as finding your perfect match are unrealistic. I mean, just take into account statistics alone."
Randy possesses the kind of pear-shaped, bottom-heavy body they used to say was less likely to get cancer. He's wearing a T-shirt silk-screened with an arrow pointing to a picture of the Milky Way. Under the arrow it reads "You are here."
"Randy does a lot of computer dating," says Ken, and everyone but Randy laughs. Ken verbally italicizes 'computer dating,' implying some disconcerting metaphor.
Mikki Halpin and Victoria Maat, the authors of "A Girl's Guide to Geek Guys," describe it like this: "All geeks harbor a secret fantasy about meeting some girl in cyberspace, carrying on an e-mail romance in which he has the chance to combine an activity he is comfortable with, computing, with one he is very uncomfortable with, socializing. To many geek dudes, cyberdating is just an advanced form of some kind of video game, but they are frustrated by a lack of players."
"I spent two hours in a chat room last night," Randy says. "And I really connected with one of the women. She lives in Indiana and she's only four hours away."
"How can you be sure it's a girl?" I ask, and he says, "At least I don't participate in autoerotic asphyxiation while dreaming of Yoda."
I'm not sure if he is talking about someone in particular or taking some jab at me. I have the sudden urge to steal his lunch money and give him a swirly.
A Lou Reed CD, saving grace, monotones from the stereo speakers. Celtic harpists, a Japanese punk band and Renaissance-era instrumental music wait in the shuffle wings.
I lose two more hands while they talk about some sort of computer role-playing experiences. The stories go like this: "I'm with a Level Two plebeian" (this one's from Randy), "and we're searching for the orc's diode crystal. We enter a subterranean chamber which contains only a lamp and I send the plebe, assuming even a Level Twoer will know what to do. Not. He says 'Turn on lamp.' Nothing. Then he shakes the lamp and then tries putting oil in and lighting it. Finally I step in and tell the GM, 'I rub the lamp.' Poof! Instant genie. Then the plebe says 'Genie, make me a diode crystal.' I needed to roll a d20 just to fight my way back to the surface with the plebe's scimitar. That twit almost got me killed."
Randy lights a pipe and bangs his fingers on the table to the beat of Japanese punk. "This song," he says, "reminds me of the directorial debut of Juzo Itami."
Some geekiness may be beyond just stereotypes. It may, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article, be neurobiological.
"There is some fascinating speculation going on these days," writes journalist Gary Chapman, "that the well-known stereotype of the computer geek or nerd may actually be a description of mild autism, especially a form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome."
Chapman goes on to describe Asperger's syndrome patients as having "these tendencies: Excellent rote memory; fascination with fantasy worlds and arcane facts; facility with math and science; physical awkwardness or clumsiness and sometimes an unusual gait; hyperactivity but with an ability to focus on interesting problems for hours at a time; poor social understanding; hyper-verbal activity but without the ability to make contextual connections in conversations; and an appearance of insensitivity and eccentricity."
In its serious form, Aspberger's is terribly debilitating. Many view this pigeonholing of stereotypical characteristics as yet another case of dimunition of individuality; distortion through defining.
"What do they want to do, cure the world of geeks?" asks Dan. "We're just a group of people who enjoy the same things. We just don't like your things. And, the way technology is moving, the geeks shall inherit the Earth."
Whatever. All I know is it's the last hand of the night — the big pot. I'm down $60 and just drew inside to a queen-high straight. I twist my ring, rub my nose, laugh a little too loudly when they talk about their upcoming theme parties centering around events such as the Webby Awards, Nikola Tesla's birth, Rasputin's death and the Seventh Annual Miss America Pageant Oglethon.
Everyone but Dan stays in the hand. I crack a knuckle as the raises keep coming. I take the pot.
"Nice meeting you," "Good night," they say, but no one but me seems to be leaving.
Up $40, hopped-up on caffeine and aroused by the Jeri Ryan posters, I call my wife and a few of our friends and ask them to meet me at the nearest dive bar for a few beers and a game or two of pool. Maybe it's just my neurons and my biology, but, come Saturday night, we all need to fit in somewhere.