I met John in a garret office just off Maryland Ave. in the Capitol Hill district of Washington, DC. His tired, disheveled attire might have suggested life on the street, but spritely expression and chatter hinted at something beyond that. We whiled away the time, and this is the story he told.
Like many in the District, his livelihood had once come from government services – the Pentagon, to be precise – where he had landed a civilian role coordinating private contractors; the sunniest side of a northern Virginia dream, a sweet gig. Until one late summer day, when a passenger jet slashed out of the skies, roaring across the river, the parking lots, clipping power poles on its way, and embedded wreckage, fire and calamity into the world’s largest, most secure office building. Sept. 11, 2001.
John stumbled out of the smoke and rubble – many others never did – to reclaim a future. But, though a wizard of the digital universe, a hacker who’d played it straight, he was unable to re-order the pieces of his earlier life. So shattered was he that he flailed about, sleepless, distracted, a broken and bewildered creature. His family fled, he lost home and reputation, trailing a nightmare onto the streets of a city that had once been his oyster. He found himself waiting in line for his turn at a computer in the public library.
There’s a lot to know about the streets: the parks, the soup lines and shelters, surviving foul weather and cops, guarding your few belongings, especially the endless scraps of paper required at offices, listening to soapbox preachers, the mayhem in city hospitals, working the labor pool, uncertainty of who you can trust, the indifference of passersby. Perhaps most shameful of all: glimpsing a prosperous old friend or colleague – or, God forbid, family member – through the window of a coffee shop or on the metro.
But, as he shambled down the years, something else overtook John. His mind cleared. He began to think long thoughts beyond daily survival. Thought about what was left of his life. About why he’d been spared. About the embers of a gift stirring somewhere in the ashes. Before long, he tiptoed into a job interview with a windfall smart phone in his jacket. He sat waiting while the honcho barked on the intercom about some containers of office supplies misdirected by ship toward Long Beach. ‘Should have been landed in Seattle’, shouted the COO.
John recognized this moment as providentially prepared. An epic opportunity. He drew out his phone while saying to the interviewer, ‘I think I can be of help to you.’ With a few more details about the errant shipment, he set to work with his device, and in a few short minutes looked up to tell the officer, ‘Your shipment will be at the dock in Seattle in three days.’
However deft, however secure you may feel in the digital world, sitting in the presence of a master hacker – especially one disguised as a homeless person – should inspire fear and trembling. Fear of what ravages such a person might wreak on an innocent enterprise, and trembling for hope that this force of cyber nature should immediately be brought to your side.
As John rose to leave, an impish grin tossed over the shoulder told me everything I needed to know about his unfolding comeback story.