In 1999, Katie Baker was a thoroughly self-possessed, hockey-loving 18-year-old headed for Harvard. Or so the older men she met online — and offline — believed.
If you Google hard enough, you can locate a thread deep within the Internet that was posted to the alt.sports.hockey.nhl.phila-flyers Usenet newsgroup on March 22, 2000. "Where oh where is Katie Baker??" reads the subject line. "What the hell happened to her?" says the post.
The responses are mercifully cryptic. "Detention," wrote one man. "Isn't she trapped in Cambridge?" cracked another. "Harvard has a high school? :)" responded someone with the username Nastyflyersgirl.
"Wow," wrote one lady called Starr. "No one is safe with any secrets here. Like they say, the truth is bound to come out sooner or later."
At some point in like 1995, when I was 11 or so, I started agitating for a computer of my own, no longer satisfied with the lumbering DOS-driven heap we had in the den. I wanted a Mac because we had them in school, and finally one day I got one: a PowerPC, top of the line. It came pre-loaded with a program called eWorld, and I snuck down to the garage, pulled my dad's credit card out of the wallet he kept in the door of his car, and chose the name "SportsKate."
eWorld was basically AOL but owned by Apple and only for Macs. This meant that it was cheery and adorable — the landing page looked like a little town village, complete with a happy little mail truck that would chuggachugga right up and deliver your letters — and also that very few people used it.
I spent an enormous amount of time hanging out in the virtual village, mostly downloading zany screensavers and playing online chat-room games. But Apple stock was in trouble then, falling by half to a price of $6 on March 31, 1996, the day eWorld was officially shut down. The plug was pulled at midnight on the West Coast, and I stayed up 'til 3 a.m. on the East in a chat room overflowing with people gathered together to live out the final minutes, e-hugging and exchanging contact information as if it were the last night of camp.
"I haven't known all of you," wrote one chatter, "but I wanted to say good bye and to wish you well." "Goodbye, little red mail truck," wrote another.
Soon after the shuttering of eWorld, a gang of former employees began Talk City, an Internet Relay Chat-based network that aimed, in its words, to be a "clean, well-lighted place to chat." I spent so much time chatting on Talk City that they hired me.
I got paid $8 an hour to moderate chats — scolding people for bad words, explaining what it meant when someone typed a colon followed by a dash and a parenthesis, and generally being unfailingly perky. I got $12 an hour to run topical programming. I led hard-hitting discussions about bulimia and bullying, and I hosted a popular Sunday night game called Commercial Crazies that I prepared for, mostly, by writing down the commercial slogans I saw on the MSG network during Knicks and Rangers games. (Minolta and Nobody Beats The Wiz were in heavy rotation.) I signed a document informing me that I was protected by child labor laws, as if I were shoveling coal or sewing sequins in a factory.
"When it comes to live online chats," began a 1997 article in BusinessWeek magazine, "Katie Baker keeps conversations popping. As a moderator on the Talk City chat site run by LiveWorld Productions, Inc, she hosts a Youth Online chat three nights a week. Baker draws out participants, screens out bozos, and in the process forges a global community of teens. How does she know what they care about? Because she's one of them: a 13-year old from Pennington, NJ."
"Hey Bakes, Pukester's on!" my best friend Ashley announced from my desk, where she sat playing Snood on my computer. It was 1999, the fall of our junior year in high school, and as usual we were hanging out in my dorm room blasting Destiny's Child on repeat and avoiding our homework. I didn't respond.
"Pukester" was how she'd interpreted the screen name PUKSTPR31, one created in loving memory of the Philadelphia Flyers' Pelle Lindbergh, the first NHL goaltender to place his water bottle atop the net during games and also the first to kill himself by crashing his custom Porsche into a wall while driving with a blood alcohol content of .24.
I had added a special notification on my AOL Instant Messenger to alert me specifically whenever PUKSTPR31 signed online. The other thing I had added to my IM was a little marquee for the stock TCTY, the ticker with which Talk City had IPO'd earlier that year at somewhere around $12 a share. (It would climb to a high of $29 a few months later before falling to less than a dollar midway through 2000.) As an early employee, I had been granted restricted stock options with a strike price of 29 cents. My dad, reading over the letter I got in the mail informing me of my allocation, could barely believe it: "This could pay for college!" he said, not knowing that by the time the options finally would have vested, Talk City ceased to exist.
Besides watching the stock, though, I was basically done with Talk City by then, feeling I'd outgrown the place where everybody knew my screen name, which was "KatieCCC" when I was working and "Platypus" when I was just hanging out. (I still have a handful of Beanie Baby platypi that were sent to me by Internet friends.)
"Bakes, who's Pukester?" Ashley asked.
"Oh, just my friend from the summer," I mumbled, and she turned back to the screen, satisfied: She'd grown up spending all of her summers at her family's beach house and knew what it meant to have seasonal friends.
I wasn't really lying about Pukester. He basically was my friend from the summer, because it had been during that previous summer, technically, that I had asked my mom to drive me into Princeton — I didn't yet have my license — so I could meet up with friends. When she drove away I walked to the university train station, took the dinky to Princeton Junction, and hopped on the NJ Transit to the Metropark stop. There I was picked up by PUKSTPR31, otherwise known as some dude I had met on the Philadelphia Flyers Usenet group who believed me when I said I was 18 years old and had invited me to come spend the day with him at his house on the shore.
When I moved from IRC to Usenet, I was joining a conversation that had been going on for quite some time: the message-board system was one of the oldest on the Internet, with some of the earliest posts going back almost a decade. The first group I became active on was the one for the New York Knicks. Used to the quick and ephemeral banter of Talk City chat rooms, I lurked for quite some time, intimidated by the way certain bullying writers could turn an innocent observation into a rollicking flame war spanning dozens of paragraphs and available in perpetuity online. The people who posted on the Knicks group, starved even back then for a championship, had little time for jokes. But I ultimately dipped my toe in — to praise John Starks, natch.
The New York Rangers board, my next stop, was more affable — one user mailed me a carefully curated VHS tape of famous hockey fights through the years, and another said he would send me a copy of the Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! game, although I can't remember if he ever did. There was enough cross-pollination between the various metropolitan-area hockey teams' Usenet groups that about half a year later I began reading other teams boards too, defending the Blueshirts' honor against Devils fans, who were uniformly kind, polite, and informed, and Flyers fans, who were totally not. (The Fishsticks-era Islanders group was a particularly desolate place, populated mostly by sadsack crickets meeping "Fire Mike Milbury!" all through the night.)
If the Islanders thread was an abandoned lot, the Flyers newsgroup was the smutty swingers club down the street. The subject matter consisted of roughly 30 percent hockey talk and 70 percent cheesy banter. Women — called "chippies" – were periodically made the subjects of strange fantasy scenarios and beauty pageant-like rankings. It was virtually impossible to type anything that wasn't immediately twisted into a double entendre. One long-running gag, which preceded my appearance on the newsgroup and which I never fully understood, revolved around sex with Dana Plato's corpse. The newsgroup's official FAQ listed, among other acceptable discussion topics, "Comparisons between Ron Hextall's 5-hole and a prostitute's genitalia."
The Flyers newgroup was my favorite by far.
I'm not sure when I started to lie, but it seemed like no big deal. Upholding a cherished tradition among so many high-school-aged girls throughout history, I shrugged and added two years to my age. Fifteen became seventeen. The truth just sounds different.
But the more I lied, the more I lied more, creating extraneous backstories to flesh out the details of my fictional life. I was about to graduate, I blithely allowed, scattering fibs around various posts like so much confetti. I had Rangers season tickets. I had gone to the 1999 NHL Draft party, I reported in one post, and boy, had I been surprised by all the boos for Jamie Lundmark!
On and on, each lie more pathologically gratuitous than the last. I explained that I was taking a year off before going to college at, wait for it, Harvard. It remains a great embarrassment to me that I would be so unimaginative with the location of my faux matriculation, but I more than made up for it in conjuring a whole cadre of fake older brothers whom I credited for both my love of sports and, having been knocked around by them for years, my own physical toughness at the hockey rink. I did play hockey, at least. "The Chick with the Hockey Stick," my signature file read, one of the very few things that was actually true.
I'd been crushing for a while on PUKSTPR31 before I went out to meet him, and in the days leading up to our rendezvous I'd kind of forgotten that my entire persona was predicated on fiction. Our date was pleasant enough — I brought my rollerblades, natch, and we cruised down the boardwalk and hung out on the beach. He was probably in his late 20s, cute and athletic, not some cretin from the depths of the web. We went and saw American Pie in the theater, as I reported the next day to the group:
Had my first face-to-face get together with a NGer yesterday…PUKSTPR31 was the (un)lucky guy. ;-) Anyway, we caught American Pie and I don't know if any of you have seen it, but I noticed that movie reviews seem to be appreciated here.
The movie is DAMN funny! Lots of gross scenes but they all made me laugh. Great characters and hilarious predicaments make up the entire film. There's a bit of cheesiness but other than that it's a real laugher with some memorable lines. (To those who have seen it: What's my name? Say my name, bitch!!)
Despite the painful enthusiasm — "a real laugher," my god — I actually don't remember seeing the movie that day, one of many quirks of my half-repressed memories from this time in my life. (Going back and reading my newsgroup posts from those years has been half therapy and half further trauma.) But one thing I do clearly recall was discussing his job: He was a freelance graphic artist who was designing the sleeves for an adult video label, which I considered exotic and impossibly mature. After he dropped me off at the train station that night with a hug and a kiss on the cheek — the furthest that anything actually went — I rode home in delight, imagining us as a couple, the porno artiste and his of-legal-age girlfriend.
I was too young to be doing this, or maybe the problem was that I was too old. After all, I'd met tons of people IRL during my young tweenage days at Talk City, and none of them under false pretenses. They knew I was 13, but they treated me as if I were a peer.
One woman, The Sorceress, lived in New Hampshire and had a small business making and selling customized clothes for American Girl dolls. (The Kirsten doll in my childhood bedroom is still outfitted in a pink kimono that I purchased from her.)
There was Kevyn, an Apple engineer I met up with at a mid-'90s MacWorld who once walked me through installing extra RAM in my Mac, the first and last time I ever took screwdriver to hard drive. There was minivanner, a mother of three from Connecticut whom I once called while babysitting to ask how to cook potatoes. (When my own mother found out about my use of that particular lifeline, I was made to march right back to the house with a 10-dollar bill to reimburse for the long-distance call.)
And then there was JazzyEric, an 18-year-old Mormon who was my first cyber-boyfriend. Born without an ear on one side, he had endured numerous surgeries to create one from scratch; it worked well enough to allow him to pursue a career as a musician and symphony conductor. In early 1997 he mailed me a cassette tape of him playing the piano accompaniment to "Miss Otis Regrets." I sang along with the tape during my audition for the eighth-grade play, and I earned a lead role. I wrote about Eric's inspiring story in my application essay to boarding school, and I got in.
You can't respect someone and lie to them, too, so you're faced with a choice: you can disregard that they're people with feelings, basically, or you can start to believe your own lies. At various points I'm pretty sure I did both.
One of the most frequent posters on the Flyers newsgroup, and also one of the randiest, was a guy who went by the name Au Revoire. I noticed his posts early on mostly because I couldn't understand them at all. He had a quirky skip-a-step sense of humor flecked with non-sequiturs (a prehistoric form of hashtag humor, upon current reflection.) I didn't know anyone, online or off, who was so brilliantly twisted.
We began publicly flirting. When a "Miss Flyers Newsgroup 1999" thread appeared in the fall of that year, he nominated me: "for class, beauty, humor, and chippinessship." Many members objected, pointing out that it would not look good for a Rangers fan to win the Miss Flyers NG competition. He shot back:
This is going to sound ludicrous but I think a Rangers fan should win it. Over the years we've had some very intelligent posts by members of other team's fanbases, but none so bright as those of Katie Baker. If you want to squander your votes on female posters for simple attractive qualities with little hockey skill and posting that comes out of the faucet like a trickle, vote for anyone other than Kates, but know this: You're cheating yourselves and your children out of a golden opportunity. Somehow.
The dead Dana Plato won with over 40 percent of the vote, as it turned out, but by that point Au Revoire and I were exchanging several long multi-paragraph emails a day, about hockey and Jersey and Philly and literature and Halloween costumes and music and his kids and his marital problems and my however many fictional brothers. (By this point I'd created a dossier on my Mac's "Stickies" program to help keep all my lies straight, even going so far as to assign first and middle names to all the nieces and nephews who had never been born.)
He sent me care packages — I had given him my address, a P.O. Box whose address I felt to be sufficiently opaque. The parcels were meticulously assembled, full of seasonal tchotchkes, inside jokes, letters, poems, books, magazines, and CDs with detailed track explanations that spanned several pages. He composed and typed out a two-part essay comparing me to Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises, which he titled "BrettKates." I hadn't read the book yet, so I checked it out from the school library and was mostly flattered by the comparison to such a cold-blooded heartbreaker lush.
My girlfriends and I would stop by the school mailroom on our way back from field hockey practice, faces flushed and ponytails bopping, and they'd crane their necks as I sliced open my wares. One box sent in October used real autumn leaves as makeshift packing peanuts. "Ooh, that's so creative!" my friend Lauren gushed. "Who's that from?"
"Oh, just a friend of mine," I said lightly. "Isn't it fun?"
Every morning I woke up to an email, and most days there was also one waiting for me when I got back to my room after practice or class. I'd respond, line by line. I could write about anything and he'd banter right back. He sent me a .wav file of one of his daughters chirping: "Hiya, Kates!"
I lapped up the attention and adored the indulgence. I felt so understood. I was a top student in high school, a tri-varsity athlete with plenty of friends, but I'd always been faintly off-kilter, a little bizarre. My friends were mildly weirded-out by my obsession with sports — I'd worked out a side deal with my housemaster to let me watch Knicks games in the TV lounge during study hall if I finished my work in advance — but they really couldn't quite wrap their minds around my strange online past. "So, you went in chat rooms?" they'd ask, their expressions polite but their voices edged with alarm. "You mean, like, AOL?"
My first phone conversation with Au Revoire lasted for hours. After that we would talk mostly on Sundays, which was really the only time I considered the coast clear: it was too risky to chat during the week, as my friends (or worse, the teachers on dorm duty) had a habit of popping into my room unannounced. On Saturdays I was busy with field hockey games, school dances, and stealth gatherings in the baseball dugout, where my friends and I would pass around a bottle of vodka followed by a pack of disgusting grape smoker's gum whose fumes were probably more telltale than the alcohol itself. But on Sundays most of my friends would hole up in the library or take the bus into Princeton, and the hallways outside my room were deserted and still.
Eventually he wanted to meet me, pointing out that I had, after all, spent a day with PUKSTPR31. But I knew that had been different — a last-minute lark, a breezy suggestion on IM one night that was carried out a day or two later. My email exchanges with PUKSTPR31 had always been functional, not meandering. He was aloof enough not to ask, or to care, about who I actually was. And after he dropped me off at the train station after my day at the shore, he became the first in what would become a long and distinguished list of men who have taken me out and not called me again. I'd been shaken up by the rejection, but it made everything simpler to manage.
Things with Au Revoire were more intense, the stakes higher, the web more tangled. Unlike with PUKSTPR31, I never set up a little IM notification to alert me when he was online. I didn't need to: He'd always write me right away. He liked me a lot. I was in pretty deep. So I strung him along. "Oh, next Wednesday sounds great," I would say, knowing full well I had classes and practice and no transportation besides. Then I'd email him Monday. "I'm so sorry," I'd say. "The date should have rung a bell. I completely forgot that I had other plans. How about two weeks from Sunday? Would that work for you?"
After one newsgroup meetup in Philly (I had "planned on attending," but sent my last-minute regrets) he mailed me a small album of photos, annotated with names. There were only a couple of him — camera shy but not unattractive, looking out cautiously from beneath a black Flyers hat — and I peered at them closely, curiosity banging away at the walls of my carefully compartmentalized impassivity.
Have you ever been caught in a lie? Or caught stealing or speeding or cheating? Maybe you've known the impossible weight of the hand on your shoulder, the blinding twirl of the lights in your rearview mirror, the razor-sharp voice of your teacher or wife. Maybe you've felt yourself melting, cold water pooling deep down in your gut, the icy clench of humiliation and fear and regret: regret for what you did, sure, but more so regret that you were caught, that now everything's changed. You wonder why didn't you, couldn't you, stop while ahead — or whether in fact you were always behind. It's hard to keep track as all the blood throbs out of your brain and collects in your cheeks.
You finish stretching, and tighten your skates. You look up into the stands of your school ice hockey rink, the same way you do before all of your games. You look into the stands, find your mom and your dad, find the boys that you like and the girls that you hate, taking note of who's there so that when your line rotates in you have someone to play for, someone to impress, someone to prove wrong.
Then it catches your eye — a black hat pulled down low on the head of a guy sitting offset from everyone else near the top of the stands. His posture is furtive, with none of the easy languor of the rest of the crowd. That, and the hat. A black Flyers hat. Him. Au Revoire. He is here, at your game, in the room, in the stands, in your life, in your real life, in the life that you haven't made up. He is sitting 3 feet from your babbling friends and about 15 from your parents, who smile and wave at you, their daughter, their athletic and whipsmart and promising daughter. They can tell that you're looking their way by the tilt of your helmet, but they can't see past it to the red in your face and the fear in your eyes.
I'd been careful, I thought. How had he possibly tracked me right down to the opening minutes of a high school hockey game? I assumed it was via the sleuthing of two women on the newsgroup, the ones going by Nastyflyersgirl and Starr. My theory was based on a mosaic of evidence: newsgroup messages I interpreted as undermining, the women's jealous-seeming friendship with PUKSTPR31, and something Au Revoire had mentioned in one of his letters. "[The girls] say I should stop talking to you," he wrote, grousing that he'd not yet met me in person. "They think you're just fucking around with my head."
I can't even faintly recall whom we were playing that January day. But the shock of seeing a name from my screen sitting up in the stands, the racing thoughts, the terror of what might come next — those memories remain crystal clear. And so does the darkly comic realization that I had while I stood, paralyzed: that perhaps I might end up protected by another one of my lies. I had always told him I wore No. 11 in homage to Mark Messier, when in truth another girl on my team wore that jersey. I had worn 10 all along. (Honoring Esa Tikkanen doesn't have quite the same oomph.) I wondered if he already knew about this gratuitous untruth as well, or whether he was watching No. 11 as she skated, seeing her long blond braids and assuming they were my own. He'd seen pictures of me, sure, but like so many digital representations they were so painstakingly curated as to be borderline worthless. I wondered if he'd confront her at the end of the game, and I wondered what I would do if he did.
But there was to be no life-changing climactic scene at my hockey game, no angry announcements by Au Revoire, no black roses thrown out on the ice, no outbursts or outings or murders. What happened was, when we came out from the locker room to start the third period he was simply, poof, gone from the stands, my friends and my coaches and my parents all none the wiser. I guess it makes sense — what could he have said, really, what could he have done, that wouldn't have made him look like the bad guy, the predator, the creep, when in fact the real villain was me?
A week later I lay in the backseat of my parents' Volvo, half pinned down by luggage, headed up I-91 to The Mountain School, a semester program for 45 high school juniors from around the U.S. who had one thing in common: We had all willingly chosen to spend 16 weeks doing chores in the snow on an organic farm in rural Vermont rather than, say, go "study in Spain."
The timing of my semester away was absurdly fortuitous and so were the logistics: The school was in possession of one lonely computer, which sat perched in what had once been a hay loft. It was an ancient machine with an Internet connection so slow that whenever anyone wanted to use it they'd climb up the stairs, activate the sign-in process, head back downstairs to study or go feed the chickens or wash out maple-syrup buckets, and return 30 minutes later to see if it had all finished loading. If they were lucky, it had.
For someone who'd had nonstop Internet access since the age of 11, this was like spending nine months at a convent after getting knocked up.
The first time I successfully signed on, a few days after arriving, I received an IM almost immediately from Nastyflyersgirl. Her screen name popped up first, with her message taking some more time to flow through. "You fucking liar," it finally said. "Everyone knows what you did."
I stared at the IM on the molasses computer, my cheeks hot with shame, and realized it would take ages to properly sign off. So I got on my hands and knees and yanked the entire surge protector cord right out of the wall, watching as the screen shriveled in on itself, growing smaller and smaller, until all that remained was a tiny white dot.
The Internet moves in mysterious ways. A few months ago, I received an email: "Au Revoire is now following you on Twitter!" it chirped, and my throat went dry. Could it be? I sleuthed his email — he still posts on the Usenet group, so it wasn't too hard — and sent him a tentative note. His response couldn't have been nicer, so I gracelessly took the liberty to ask if, um, by the way, had that maybe been him at my hockey game 10 years ago? He confirmed that it was. I bombarded him further. Were there signs I had been lying, I asked? And how was I ultimately found out?
It was New Year's Eve, he wrote back.
Was it while ringing in 2000 or 1999? After a great evening in the city, it was early in the morning and I had decided to sleep downtown. For some reason I got a forward of yours, via email, and I read this before falling asleep. It was one of those "fun" polls that asks you a zillion stupid questions and pretends to be cute, and this gets forwarded around to all friends, family, priest-friends of the family, and maybe even old or present classmates who happen to all go to the same school together. It didn't take more than a few lines before I got up and went to bed in an awkward yet enlightened manner. Like getting the indisputable evidence of a really good, yet finished, meal in the form of an expensive bill, written in front of me was "Age: 16." And then everything was clear.
Just as I had never been able to fully prevent random elements of my weird digital world — the IM buddy alerts, the care packages — from creeping into my real life, it was inevitable that the information would at some point flow the opposite way. But seriously, though: a novelty fun poll?! After so many months of intricate sidestepping and tap dancing, such a simple stumble was baffling. Even worse, it was lame. I felt like a bank robber who had sailed in on a zip line under the cloak of night, deactivated the fancy security system, and made off with millions — only to have left my ID behind on the floor of the vault.
And yet at the same time the sad-olescence of it all made a perverse kind of sense. Behind my careful facade I was just some dumb teenage girl, mindlessly filling out AOL surveys (oh god, I probably put down American Pie under "Favorite Movie") from my floral-quilted childhood bedroom before getting ready for, it appears, New Year's Eve, which I recall ringing in from my friend Rich's basement because his mom let us drink. It was the dawn of 2000, which means that while Au Revoire was getting blindsided by the contents of his inbox, I was sneaking out of a window to make out with some guy — and then getting caught by Rich's furious mom when I tried to sneak back in the morning. Age: 16, indeed.
I have never considered this my story; it has always been my secret. I told no one while it was happening, and for years afterward I never said a word. Why would I? Even the happiest-ending anecdotes about my Internet past had long been social suicide. (Friends seeing the BusinessWeek article for the first time tended towards the same reaction: "Oh my god, look at you!" they'd say. "You were such a little loser!") The thought of divulging all the darker details made me nauseous. It was a lonely silence. I had always gone online as a respite from life's dull and daily troubles, but as with any shameful vice — addiction, debt — the solution turned into its own problem somewhere along the way.
If there was anyone who might relate to this, I realized, it was probably the group of mostly bloggers crowded into a small bar on the Lower East Side last June for a reading series whose vague mandate was "stories about the Internet." So I stood up, drunk and terrified, on my 27th birthday, and explained everything that happened from beginning to end.
My hunch that I might find a sympathetic crowd here turned out to be true. Afterward, people came up to me to recall their own oddball histories, with GeoCities, or wArEz, or — of course — AOL. Others seemed glad to know they weren't the only creeps who had sent letters and packages to Internet friends, or even gone so far as to meet them offline. One or two just wanted to reminisce about eWorld, and the thrill of its little red mail truck. And it turned out I wasn't the only one to have played fast and loose with my identity: a few people cataloged some former online untruths of their own.
Isn't that the ultimate blessing of the Internet? Sure, it lets you lie and deceive. But it also lets you confess, and draw a small community to your confession, and find, eventually, a clean, well-lighted place for your real self.
Art by Jim Cooke