CoffeeHouse, SOCO, Austin, TX
I walked up to the coffee shop, looked past the concert flyers on the windows, and shuffled through the door. Consumers of the latest trending lattes stood guard, no doubt ready to change the world. The faint smell of coffee floated in the air. This coffee shop was pure Austin. The furniture looked stolen, the menu was written on chalkboard. A big rustic log-table with a hole in the middle, and unbelievably smooth all around the top sat in the center of the room. Two comfy couches that were probably picked up off the sidewalk sat on either side. Every other seat in the shop was a wobbly old bar stool that looked like it came from a 1950s burger joint.
I glanced around the room looking for unattended computers, and mobile hotspots. Sure enough, right in front of me there was a black wifi hotspot with four antennae pointed up. The table was empty. I’d heard of these devices before, but only recently learned they could be in use anywhere, even your favorite local coffee shop. They’re called pineapples, and they look like less sexy versions of whatever hotspot you can get from a phone carrier. I looked at the casing on the lonely device, and sat down in the chair. The metal felt cool, and the device felt light.
The chair was still warm. I looked to see if anyone noticed I wasn’t sitting here before. I made deliberate eye contact. Everyone went about his or her business without giving me so much as a second look. The browser was opened to the New York Times with the front-page headline reading, “Vandals Break-In at the Terracotta Warrior Museum.” Orange colored stains were crusted onto the keyboard, the spacebar sticking as I pressed it down. The screen was covered in cloudy smudges, and fingerprints.
I minimized the browser, and discovered the terminal. It displayed a list of 36 people connected to the device, and a log of their activity. The computer was monitoring everyone’s traffic, at least everyone who set their device to connect to any available network. Whoever had set this up was monitoring everything, but from the looks of it, it was mostly emails, web browsing, and social media. After all, nobody was going to go to a local coffee shop to buy counterfeit money in broad daylight.
I clicked around the desktop. There was a separate browser up called “Tor,” that opened to a site with a “.onion” domain, and a string of numbers in front of it. The page was laid out like Craigslist, but you could find anything from cocaine, and heroin, to counterfeit currency. You could also buy store gift cards or prepaid credit cards for a fraction of their value. It was the dark web. I started to type into the field, “guns,” then “money,” then “China,” then stopped when I noticed a picture of a Terracotta Warrior statue on the bottom of the page. I scrolled down and clicked over to the listing to read the details. It was listed for $1,000,000 USD, and claimed to come with evidence proving it was from the site. Maybe it is real, I thought.
My eyes focused on the zeros as a coffee mug fell to the floor at the table across from mine, the spill getting a few drops on my shoes. One of the baristas emerged from behind the counter and apologized profusely as I jumped up from my seat, and took three steps away from the table. I smiled, and moved toward the door, pushing it open, and walking out to the lot to get my computer. My hands shook as I opened the passenger door and reached for my bag. Nobody saw me, I thought. Go back in. I walked back in, and made note of the pineapple. Trying not to draw too much attention to myself, I sat down on the other side of the shop. The device was still there. The owner still wasn’t. I was curious when he would emerge.
I generally sit at coffee shops for an hour before I order anything, because when I go, I like to work on longer projects. Not today though. Today, I had a simple goal. I’d write a “thank you” email to the interviewer, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. My arms buckled as I held my hands over the keys, struggling to think of the words that would influence him to “keep me in mind,” as I stared back at the empty table.
I clicked the wifi menu to make sure I was on the right network. Days before the end of my final semester in college, I stayed overnight at the library putting the finishing touches on the Nixon paper that I’d spent all semester researching, and writing. The time helped me reflect on my research. Nixon recorded everything. The most mundane conversations, and the most illuminating policy discussions sit in the National Archives, waiting to be heard. I remember his cautious, nasally voice as he picked up the receiver, and said “hello?” He’d make the occasional bad dad joke on the line with his daughter, or express his fear to Henry Kissinger about the “human wave” of China if we ever went to war. The surveillance state started under Nixon, and never looked back. And then it claimed him as its most notorious perpetrator.
Nowadays anyone could buy a pineapple, and go on the Internet to find a tutorial for accessing the dark web. You could probably learn how to intercept, and monitor traffic at you own local coffee shop by next week if you really wanted to. We’re all Richard Nixon. Everything you’ve ever done is stored somewhere on the web.
I walked up to the bar to place my order. The barista asked me if I wanted a French roast, or flavor of the day as I leaned over the counter trying to make sense of the menu. For convenience, I guess, it was written in thick, pasty green, and pink chalk. I opted for an Italian-flavored French roast. A good smelling coffee is critical to getting the most punch out of your work, and there’s nothing like an Italian French Roast. The barista handed the cup to me, and I opened the top to breathe in the aroma, taking a sip and burning my tongue. She looked on with pity as I tried to pass it off like it didn’t hurt. The smell was perfect. This would be a productive afternoon.
“What’s the wifi network and password?” I asked, looking over at the vacant seat.
“CupOfJoe is the network, Cream And Sugar is the password, first letters are capital,” she answered.
I can’t remember the last time I added cream or sugar to my coffee. Such a thing was unheard of these days. The worst though, is when the grounds sink to the bottom of the cup, and it makes that last sip thick, and chalky. You can feel it on your tongue, and you have to violently rub it up against the roof of your mouth, tasting all the bitterness from the grounds. Then you start to feel this involuntary and faint palpitation in your chest, wondering if it’s normal, or if your heart’s about to fail.
I finished the last sip, and my concentration shifted to the ambient conversations around the coffee shop. The guy behind me said something about finding his wife cheating with someone from her acting class, and he started to whimper, breaking my deep thought on why, “barista,” was adopted as an English word. I listened closely until a surprising pat on the back startled me.
“Art! What kind of rabbit hole are you going down?”
My heart beat out of my chest, and I stood up from the chair as I looked across the table to see who it was. It was a friend of mine. He smiled. His story was becoming typical for the successful entrepreneur, and it was quickly becoming the token American dream of the new millennium. He started out as a worker, then blogger, then he got this idea, and crowd funded his project into the stratosphere. He was an Austin dynamo whose reputation in town, and on the web, had exploded, like so many others. He’d gone from being nobody to cutting deals with major corporations in a single year. Everyone knew Paul’s name.
“Hey. Good to see you, man. I’ve been great,” I said.
He looked at me with a confused smirk.
“Good to see you too, pal,” he said, reaching his hand out.
“I keep seeing you all over the Internet… it must be wild,” I conceded.
“Do you?” he asked. “Care to join me?”
“Sure,” I answered, as I grabbed my computer, and followed him toward his table. He picked up his computer, and the wifi device, and gestured toward the couches.
“So, what have you been up to?” he asked.
“Chasing dead ends for now.”
“I know that game,” he smiled.
He put the pineapple down on the table top, and repositioned the four antennae.
“I’ve been meaning to ask. What do you know about China?” he said.
“I studied Chinese history in college. Mostly their relationship with the West.”
He had a confused look in his eyes as he looked back up to me, then closed the top.
“I might be working with this guy on this piece about China. Don’t know the details yet.”
“No kidding,” I said.
“Hey listen, you should come by the office for our South By South West party. It’s gonna be huge.”
I began to wonder how many pineapples would be setup at South By South West parties. It was probably a number significantly greater than zero.
“That sounds like fun,” I said. “Where is your office?”
“We’re at the Omni Downtown.”
Of course you are, I thought.
“Well, it’ll be good to have a few drinks,” he said.
Since the beginning of civilization man has assembled for parties to consume alcohol. Some scholars contend that’s how civilization started. The reason is simple: beer has calories, and it’s less likely to carry bacteria. Modern society functions around the idea that moderate consumption of beer for celebration is good. Until it isn’t. Hence the “launch party.” It’s the next step up from the cave party. Nicer dress, better music, fewer threats, yet still dark and driven by our basest instincts. But with manners. And that’s what goers of South By can expect. A big drunken gathering with conferences and nametags where your PR team is pitching your latest product for the first time, only instead of the cave, a parade of drunks and overly enthusiastic young kids stumble around the city in broad daylight. Still, there’s never a shortage of journalists and if you execute a finely tuned strategy, you’re looking at boosting your company, or your brand visibility quite a bit. It’s fucking beautiful if you have something worth talking about. And for those looking to go to the next level, throwing a party gets you on any number of maps to attract new employees, investors, or partners. It’s a simple decision when a rising star extends an invitation.
“Yeah, I’ll stop by,” I said.
“Great. And hey, if you want to write about China I can probably get you published in this new journal,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Don’t know exactly, but he’s a well known guy in tech, and he’s working with some author on a book about China.”
“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.
“Can I count on you?”
He folded up the antennae, put the pineapple in his bag, and smiled.
“We’ll see,” I answered.
“See you soon,” he said. “Watch out for those dead ends.”
Paul stood up, and waved at me as he made his way toward the exit. I opened my computer to check my email, and facebook, and noticed a story about the ghost cities again. I shared it, noting to all my good family, friends, and acquaintances, how it’s the perfect mixture of city life: tall buildings, and no people.
I sat staring at the screen, attempting to write the email, but nothing came to me. My fingers hovered over the keys. I couldn’t help but think Paul didn’t seem like the type of guy who was much more than a tourist on the dark web. It was the Wild West. He didn’t fit the bill.