A song about a song about Berkeley.
Twenty years after “the Switch,” two friends:
— & Ravi
walk down an abandoned and bombed-out 4th Street.
Joey wields his goggles, a salvaged Dell laptop, and a bit of software.
His goal: to recover what was once felt.
Recover the Love Song
Joey because he liked telling stories about baby kangaroos.
“C’mon, Joey. We don’t have all day. Some of us like getting our homework done.”
Joey brushed a few drops of sweat from his forehead.
“I think I’m onto something, here. Give me a bit.”
“You’re not onto anything, dude. We’ve just been walking for the last hour!”
“We’re close,” Joey said. He turned to face Ravi—Ravi, because every best friend is Ravi—and he smiled, tapping the sleek black goggles he was wearing. “The internet knows best, and the internet says the old recycling place is just up ahead.”
“Recycling place, Joey, not paradise. It’ll be there tomorrow, and you can come back on your own to bathe in a sea of twenty-five-foot crossovers.”
“If you want to go home you can.” Joey blinked, his eyes enlarged and bug-like in his goggles. Turning away from Ravi, Joey continued trudging down the devastated street. Ravi sighed and followed. “As for paradise, man, nothing here’s paradise. Not even I’m that delusional.”
The two walked on between two looming skeletal skyscrapers. Window glass, instead of filling the panes, littered the sidewalks. The graffiti on the walls, common already in the neighborhood before the Switch, was almost completely obscured with dust. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven in places; narrow ravines latticed the street. The sun, setting behind the mountains behind the bay behind the buildings, threw the entire street into an eerie dusk half-light that fit the mood perfectly.
“I still don’t get why you come out here.”
“And I don’t get why you follow me.”
“Fair enough,” answered Ravi, “but in your case, you’re not tagging along with a best friend.”
“Close enough,” shrugged Joey without looking back.
Joey sighed as they walked.
“You know, everyone who lived here, twenty years ago. They’re all friends of mine, too.”
“Joey, they’re dead.”
“No, Ravi, no. They’re all alive. The molecules that passed through them… before… are thriving inside our bodies now, and the emotions they felt, those emotions are also in us, with us.”
“Another fancy story.”
“Not too fancy.” Joey kicked a loose chunk of concrete along as they walked. “Why do you think I come out here?”
“Like I said, I don’t get it.”
“Oh yeah. Yeah. You did say that, didn’t you.”
“Yeah. I did.”
The two friends walked the rest of the way in silence.
“Man, this place is a gold mine!”
“Outdated. Old. Been there, done that.” Ravi sighed. “This is why the kids at Tech make fun of you, Joey. Try something fresher, something like data mine, something.”
“Sorry, Rav. I still live in the decade of the Switch.” Joey, sitting cross-legged on the floor of blown-out warehouse, energetically rummaged through a pile of computer parts. “Culturally, that is.”
His words came out slowly, absentmindedly, as he sifted through the pile of what seemed to Ravi a bunch of plastic bricks. Occasionally he would raise one above his head and examine it carefully through the goggles, a sharp beam of light shooting out intermittently from the left lens to illuminate the specimen.
Ravi kept his goggles in his pocket; he was far less proud of them than Joey was of his. To Ravi, they were a tool required for school and nothing more. For Joey, they were a way of life, an interface to a greater entity than one could meet to chat over a cup of coffee.
Ravi sighed, his gaze sweeping about the warehouse as Joey scrambled through the heap of junk.
“They used to work here, huh,” Ravi muttered. There were trolleys lying around, and the remains of a glass jar lay on a desk next to a blackened cash register.
“Almost done?” called Ravi, half an hour later, having usurped the cash register’s place for want of a better place to sit than the floor—which was, as he’d anticipated, littered with ancient Cat5 cables.
“Yeah, I’ve found maybe thirteen or fourteen drives that seem to be completely intact,” Joey replied. “Only have a few more to go through.”
Ravi smiled despite himself.
Just half an hour, and he goes through that whole pile…
“Alright! I got it! Fourteen of’em,” said Joey, standing and brushing dust and soot off his jeans. His arms were full of the plastic bricks.
“That’ll be fun to carry back,” remarked Ravi. “Let’s get going, eh? It’s already dark out.”
Ravi carried seven of the drives on the return journey.
“Work, work, work!” Joey ground his teeth at his Dell laptop. Its speeds were frustrating compared to the snappiness of modern goggles. Goggles had no backward compatibility, though, as he explained to Ravi every time Ravi raised an eyebrow at the inelegant black slab.
“That’s not a computer,” Ravi would chuckle.
“It’s a bridge,” Joey would growl. He was proud of the machine; he’d resuscitated it himself. Getting the lumbering Karmic Koala to work again had taken him the better part of a summer of tinkering.
Residual data on the Dell’s solid state disk revealed that its old owner had dubbed it ‘Stealth.’ Compared to the truly silent goggles, however, the thing was a banshee. It still had a fan, even if its primary storage didn’t spin, and that fan would screech whenever the Dell found itself chewing on a particularly resilient bone. Right now, it was working on the first of the fourteen drives the two had collected the night before.
“Any luck?” quipped Ravi.
“There’s something weird about this drive,” Joey replied. “DiskFix isn’t recognizing it.”
“They’ve all been degaussed,” said Ravi. He wondered why he remembered that.
“Dunno. They had a sign on the wall in the center.”
“Hold on, I’ll check on the ‘net.”
Ravi looked on incredulous as a minute ticked by. Then Joey shook his head.
“Initial results: grim,” he proclaimed. “If a drive’s been properly degaussed, there’s no way to recover the data with the kind of software I’m running.”
“Haha, give up?” Ravi chuckled. “I guess your gold was pyrite.”
“You’ll never shut up about that, will you,” grumbled Joey. “Whatever. There’s some chance of recovery. Some guy on craigslist says he has a device that can read ‘disk sectors’ directly.”
“Whatever those are.”
Ravi rolled his eyes, but Joey paid him no heed.
“He has a flat rate of a hundred bucks per drive,” Joey continued, “lives in Oakland. I could take the bus tomorrow, check him out.”
“A hundred bucks?!” Joey pulled his goggles off and blinked in surprise at Ravi’s exclamation. “No, dude, no! A hundred bucks? For the chance of learning a bit more about one dead person’s private life?” Ravi paused briefly to massage his forehead. “You could go scavenge some more storage from abandoned homes, you know! Why this quest to the electronics recycling center?”
“I didn’t know about this degaussing thing,” argued Joey. “Hell, neither did you!”
“Well now you know. Toss these drives, man. Don’t blow a g and a half on this!”
“Yes, now I know.” Joey turned from Ravi to look down at the fourteen drives, splayed out on an old ping pong table. This was where he partook of his hobby, in his parents’ basement, surrounded by cold concrete walls and an array of speakers both functional and broken. “And it’s because I know that I want to recover this data!”
“This makes no sense,” Ravi sighed, sliding off the edge of the ping pong table and stuffing his hands into his pockets.
“It makes perfect sense. Don’t you wonder why these people had their drives erased?” Joey’s eyes shone. He clasped his hands together over his Dell’s keyboard. “What kinds of delicious emotional secrets are they hiding…?”
“Listen up, Joe.” Ravi stood in the doorway, one hand on the railing leading up and out of the basement. “It was a recycling center. People sent computers there when they were done with them. Degaussing drives was probably par for the course because people kept their tax IDs or credit card numbers on their comps.”
“You have no spirit,” whined Joey.
“That’s right, Joey. I only have homework. Good night.”
“You’re doing what?” asked Ravi. Alone in his bedroom, he lay on his bed, looking up at his ceiling through a pair of clunky goggles. Three generations old, battleship gray, they irritated the bridge of his nose. The feeling disappeared as Joey confirmed what he’d just heard, though.
“Webwork, man. Designing lenses for an AE cell.”
It wasn’t illegal to voice the sentiments. Freedom of speech had been grandfathered into the Establishment.
The AEs, though, they were different. Ravi stammered gibberish into his goggles’ microphone. Finally a quiet “really?” escaped his lips.
“It’s not a problem, dude.” Joey chuckled on the other end. “Scared? They’ve agreed not to attach my name to anything, and they’re paying in cash.”
“And you don’t think the feds monitor—”
“It’s fine, Rav. You know me. I’m careful. I encrypt everything.”
“I’m sure they can get around it…”
“Well, I need the money. What happens, happens. This is all in the name of recovery.” Joey reclined on the ping pong table in his parents’ basement. The fourteen degaussed hard drives lay scattered at his sides. Blinking LEDs, each from a different piece of hardware, were the only light source in the room.
“Are you even any good at making lenses, man?” asked Ravi. “I don’t recall you working at it before.”
“Sure I am. I’ve created tons already—two or three for myself, one for my uncle… heck, I made you a blog, didn’t I?” A pause. “I did.”
“And you never use it.”
“I never asked for one!” exclaimed Ravi. “You were just showing off your skills!”
“So you admit I have them.”
“I wasn’t particularly impressed.”
“You have no idea how these things work!”
“Man, fed lenses have better designs than that blog, and those are usually made by unpaid interns. You think you’re AE webmaster caliber?”
“Hater. I made that lens like two years ago.”
“Bleh. Look, man. Joey—be careful.” Ravi turned onto his side and found himself staring at a disturbingly patriotic crime novel he’d been reading for school before Joey called. “Remember that those things lying in your basement are just metal and plastic. You’re too young to risk your record tinkering with them. It’s fine if you spend your savings on that dude in Oakland, you don’t need to take a job like this—”
“It’s fine by you? It’s not fine by my parents.”
“They said you can’t use your savings?”
“That’s when you give up, Joey.”
“I never give up,” Joey replied. “And it’s people lying on this table, Ravi. People. Me and them.”
Ravi sighed heavily into his mic.
“You’re insane, dude. Insane.”
“I get that a lot.”
“Well, I have homework—”
“And I have real work,” sniffed Joey. “I’ll throw you a line if I find anything cool on those drives.”
Ravi pressed the red button on the side of his goggles and removed them. He was worried, but what could he do? Discouraging Joey had never worked before.
Ravi was in school when he got the call, eight days later.
His pocket started buzzing, and his classmates turned to stare at him.
“I thought he didn’t use them outside school,” said Max.
“Rav’s got a number on his goggles?” asked Britnee.
A few students exchanged puzzled looks. Ravi reached into his pocket and hit the red button on his goggles. He smiled sheepishly.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Those WERE his!”
“Can I get your num—”
“Enough!” cried Mr. Fuji, biology teacher, cutting off Bret. “Ravi, hall for five minutes.”
Ravi nodded silently, stood, and exited the white-walled classroom. In the hall, illuminated by LED panels fixed to the ceiling, he removed his goggles from his pocket and donned them. He checked his communications log—it was Joey. He dialed back, but got no response. Normally, I wouldn’t be worried. Things are different when you’re dealing with AEs.
Flipping through various unfamiliar lenses of his goggles’ call interface, Ravi discovered that there was a new textual voicemail from Joey.
“Hey Rav. Because I was afraid the feds might take me away for my work with the AEs, I set up this system so that I’d need to enter a password every hour or my goggles would automatically send you this message. If you’re reading this, I’ve been taken away—who knows for how long. I’ll contact you again as soon as I can. For now, though, I’d like for you to go to my place. The first cash payment from the AEs ($200) should be on the ping pong table in my basement, along with the hard drives. Bring them to the guy in Oakland, pay him, get whatever data you can. I attached the craigslist ad and his contact info, so you can let him know you’re coming and arrange a time. I won’t ask you to do these things instead of going to Tech, or instead of doing your homework—I know those things are important to you. But I also know you have a lot of free time. Please do this thing for me.
“I’m sorry for always dragging you into things.”
Ravi wrenched his goggles off his head and tightened his grip on them. That dumbass!
Ravi stood panting at Joey’s front door, recovering his breath after running across El Cerrito. The door opened and Joey’s mother smiled.
“Ravi! What a pleasant surprise!”
“Ma’am,” he said, “may I come in? Joey asked me to—”
“Sure.” She held the door wide. “Make yourself at home.”
“Thank you,” said Ravi, pausing to nod graciously before dashing downstairs.
Ravi burst out laughing, spouting profanity between uncontrollable giggles. There was Joey, sprawled out on the ping pong table, surrounded by hard drives, clutching the Dell laptop to his chest.
Once he’d calmed down, Ravi walked over to his friend and jabbed him in the gut.
“You look like a complete fool,” he said.
“Mmm, Rav, ‘sup—”
“Tip for you, Joey, before I run back to Tech and apologize to Fuji for fleeing class: your alert system is unbelievably stupid. Fall asleep for more than an hour and the feds have taken you away and I’m supposed to worry my ass off over you?”
Joey blinked, dazed.
“‘m sorry, Rav—”
Ravi frowned and turned to leave.
“Turn off your damn alerts and get back to sleep. You need it.”
Ravi paused at the top of the basement stairs.
“… good work with the AEs.” It was kind of cool that his best friend was doing real work, getting real pay. Less cool was that this work wasn’t resume material, and the constant threat of the feds disappearing Joey made everything less happy. And it’s two in the afternoon. We should really be in school right now.
“Boo!” said Joey as he walked into Ravi’s room.
Ravi looked up in false surprise. It was a traditional entrance on Joey’s part. More often than not, the greeting elicited annoyance on Ravi’s part. Joey’s visits were rarely well-timed, and always unannounced. This time, however, Ravi was glad to be saved from a particularly torturous section of his math homework.
“What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
Joey smiled and produced his Dell from a small shoulder bag.
“Here, got any old USB dongles lying around?”
“Been to Oakland and back?”
Ravi rummaged around under his bed, eventually coming up with a thick gray cable which he plugged into his goggles.
“You’ve already seen the contents?”
“Nope. I brought a splitter—” Joey reached into his bag and took out a fine blue wire. “—yeah, there, loop it through the thread socket, no, not like that—” He reached over and fixed one end of the wire to Ravi’s goggles, the other to his own.
The two friends donned their goggles, and Joey’s hand trembled as he brought the gray cable closer to the Dell’s USB ports.
“Excited?” smiled Ravi.
“Fucking ecstatic,” Joey replied.
Mark Rosenville’s Mac.
A folder full of pirated movies, the cheesy romantic kind, all with a light color palette.
A folder full of programs, many geared toward amateur movie production.
A folder full of camera clips and scripts.
Tens of thousands of songs, most protected beyond the degaussing by archaic DRM.
The obligatory collection of financial records.
And a folder labeled with a girl’s name—full of text files.
Joey smiled as he examined one of them. A love letter, a digital love letter.
Mark’s love had moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as a Hollywood actress. Just out of business school at Berkeley, he was saving up to follow her while trying to establish career connections in Southern California. His true passion wasn’t number-pushing, of course; he’d always wanted to be a songwriter.
“Maybe one day,” he wrote, “you can sing this song while the camera rolls.”