Taherwatch

19 Oct

Here’s a story about my freshman year of college.* I don’t know if it’ll really work as an essay, since there’s not really a climax or a satisfying ending. It’s just a thing that happened.

*I’m telling this all from memory. There might be some minor or major errors. I’m not trying to embellish anything or take any other literary license.

The story is about my roommates and I. Their names were Jack and Taher.* Jack was a very tall white guy from across the state. Taher was short, kind of chubby, and Persian. His dad lived in town. I talked to Jack via email a couple times over the summer, but neither of us got ahold of Taher before school started. Even though I never talked to him, he became a minor celebrity among my friends from high school, since I was under the impression that his name rhymed, which we all enjoyed. Turns out I had misread his first name on the roommate form. I’m an idiot. In any case, I thought this would be the peak of Taher’s fame. I was wrong.

*I don’t feel great about throwing names around on my blog, so I’m using pseudonyms.

Taher was in the room when I showed up on move-in day. He was already pretty settled in, and he was very friendly. He helped me with some boxes and made small talk with my parents. Jack arrived later that day. He had a large group of friends from high school who also went to our college. They were quite a cast of characters. I really don’t remember anything specific about what happened those first couple days–what we did, how long we were there before class started, etc. That’s one of the times in your life that becomes a blur.

The three of us lived in a gigantic dorm building. A couple thousand students. Our room was supposed to be a double, but due to overcrowding it was converted into an “economy triple”. It was 12×19 and only had two closets. It was not reasonable to expect three people to share this room.

Not from my college but you get the idea

Despite being a bit cramped, we all got along pretty well. Drinking together before football games and that kind of thing. We decorated our room in the best college style: a piece of carpet salvaged from the curb, a blanket laid down to cover the carpet stains, posters stolen from the annual campus poster sale, a shelf of empty liquor bottles, snapshots of friends. Taher decorated one of the closet doors with a few pictures of him posing with ladies from his high school. Some of these ladies were quite attractive. They looked to be enjoying themselves in the pictures. Getting into high school-style hijinx no doubt.

The only point of contention was that Taher was an occasional smoker. We had a non-smoking room, and Taher generally went out to the courtyard to smoke. Every now and then he’d smoke by the window in our room with a fan blowing out the window. He’d asked us if this was OK and we didn’t mind it when weren’t around and he didn’t do it too often. After a couple weeks it was starting to get a little bothersome to me. More so to Jack, apparently. He came home drunk one night and sort of blew up about it. I say sort of, because it wasn’t really a big confrontation, and Taher wasn’t supposed to smoke in our room anyways. I don’t even know if this particular incident really bothered Taher either, but I mention it because it’s the only example I can remember of us not getting along.

One other thing is worth mentioning. I’ll do it quickly because it’s the kind of thing that could easily overwhelm the rest of this post: 9/11 happened right after school started. I remember that a lot more clearly than anything else in the story. Taher was a Muslim. There was some “hurr Muslims are bad durr” on campus over the next few days, but I remember it as a pretty insignificant minority. Taher might remember it differently. So that might have been a factor in his decision-making going forward. Or it might not have. I don’t know.

As I mentioned, Taher’s dad lived in town. Taher also had a car and worked part-time at Best Buy. Sometimes he would go home for dinner or something. Taher didn’t talk much about his daily activities; he mostly kept to himself. I’m also a pretty quiet guy, so I wasn’t exactly asking a lot of questions of him. One thing that he did tell me was that he had a scholarship that was paying his room and board. As time started to pass, Taher would go home more often, and for longer periods of time. For a night, then for a weekend, then for a couple days during the week. Taher never told us why he was spending more time away, and he never told us when he’d be gone. But he was gone a lot. By November, he was spending a lot more time at home than at the dorm. It got to the point where we were surprised to see him in our room. By January, we stopped seeing him at all. He essentially lived at home–I don’t recall him staying overnight in the dorm after Christmas. My guess was that the only reason he kept his technical campus residency was because of the scholarship I mentioned. Taher never told Jack and I that we was moving out. He never told us when to expect him next, or if we could expect him at all. He just sort of disappeared.

* * * * *

My parents bought me a laptop as a high school graduation present, and when I got to college it was the first time I ever had regular internet access. Being online was pretty awesome to me, but the internet then was a much different place than it is now. That’s not to say the internet wasn’t important to the lives of college students. It was. I  illegally downloaded a lot of music and movies from the various post-Napster p2p networks. I developed a detailed knowledge of esoteric baseball statistics. I spent countless hours on a message board devoted to underground rap music. I discovered http://realultimatepower.net/.

Are you ready to get pumped?

Those were all pleasant diversions, but the most important and ubiquitous use of the internet on early-2000s college campuses was AOL Instant Messenger.  In the 2001-02 school year, social media and social networking weren’t really things yet. There was no Twitter, there was no Facebook, there was no such thing as a blog. Most kids didn’t even have cell phones. AIM was it. Both in the sense of being cool and in the sense of being the only way to communicate. These sounds were the soundtrack of my freshman year.

The key element of the AIM interface was the buddy list. This was a list in your AIM window of the usernames of your e-buddies. It showed when they were online, inactive, and crucially, when they were away. In order to indicate to people who might want to talk to you that you were unavailable, you could set your status to “away”. AIM would then display a post-it note icon next to your name on the buddy lists of others, and would autoreply to messages you received with an away message. This message would also be shown on your profile when people clicked on it. AIM had a few default away messages, but you could also write your own. These custom away messages quickly became the most convenient way to communicate with all of your friends at once. No one used the default message. Everyone used away messages the way people use Twitter or Facebook status updates now. It seems obvious in retrospect, but if anyone then had realized that a service consisting only of away messages would have been incredibly popular, they’d be rich now. I used to compulsively check the profiles of all my friends who were away in order to read their messages. I know I’m not the only person who did this.

This is a bad away message

I was a master of the away message. The character limit was much higher than Twitter’s (several hundred, if I recall), and you could continue a message in your profile, since the two were displayed together. I would post song lyrics, tell jokes, write humorous anecdotes about my day, and the like. Over time they got longer and more detailed and I put more and more time into thinking of new away messages. I got a lot of comments from friends who enjoyed them. My away message prowess spread by word of mouth. There were even a couple people I didn’t even know at colleges I didn’t attend who put me on their buddy lists to read them. I loved away messages.

* * * * *

I don’t remember who was the first, but at some point, Jack and I started talking about Taher in our away messages. We’d make jokes about how he left, how long it had been since we’d seen him, and speculate about what he might be doing. We began writing daily updates about having not seen Taher. We kept a count of the days since we’d seen him. We’d breathlessly report that a friend may have seen him on a bus. Soon after the start of the winter semester we were calling this Taherwatch.

Coming up with new daily Taherwatch updates was sometimes difficult, since we didn’t actually have anything to say about him. So we’d have to stretch a bit. We would say all kinds of nonsense that we could somehow relate back to Taher. It was a vehicle for us to make jokes more than anything. Eventually we moved the Taherwatch to our profiles, so everyone could check it even when we weren’t away. This also enabled us to use our away messages for other kinds of shenanigans. We both had a great time writing about Taher. All of our friends seemed to enjoy it. Everyone wanted to know more. A mysterious disappearing roommate was just about the most interesting thing happening in our little world.

Taherwatch kept getting longer and more elaborate, and one night we thought it might be hilarious to make a Taherwatch website instead of using our AIM profiles. If only this had happened now, we could make a Taherwatch blog. Of course, at the time, there was no such thing as a blog. The only way we knew of to make a website for free was to use GeoCities. So that’s what we did.

This is what most GeoCities sites looked like

The website consisted of a homepage, a Taher bio, a page for my Taher updates, and a page for Jack’s Taher updates. Keep in mind, there were no actual Taher updates, since we never saw or talked to him. Our Taher updates continued to involve him tangentially, at best. We scanned a couple of Taher’s photos to put on the homepage, so our readers could have an idea of what he looked like. These, remember, were the photos of him with some foxy ladies. Jack and I had been joking between ourselves what a smooth operator Taher must be. To emphasize this point, we had a MIDI of Sade’s Smooth Operator autoplay on the homepage. The background was one of the GeoCities themes–black with green digital numbers and stuff. Just like the Matrix. Taherwatch definitely captured the zeitgeist of personal web pages in 2002. Did I mention there was also a guestbook? The main features were counting the number of days since we’d seen him and a list of reasons he might have left. This went something like:

  1. He hates Jack
  2. He hates Matt
  3. He hates both Jack and Matt
  4. He’s off somewhere being a smooth operator
  5. etc.

 

Here’s a good time to relate a couple disappointing facts: I don’t remember anything specific that I wrote on Taherwatch. Also, Taherwatch no longer exists. GeoCities doesn’t even exist. Disappeared into the ether of the internet. I realize being able to actually see the site would make this whole thing a lot more interesting to read. Oh well.

Since this was the internet, there developed a controversy around the guestbook. Today we might call this a flame war. We might even refer to our readers as trolls. Back then, it was just called dumb arguing. There were two main groups of people who read Taherwatch: my friends from high school and Jack’s friends from high school (who mostly attended our college, and who I also knew). I don’t even remember what the arguments were about. Something about my friends making off-topic guestbook posts I think. What I do remember is one specific guestbook post from one of Jack’s friends: “I hate Matt’s friends.” I think this was a common sentiment among Jack’s friends. I didn’t really get it. It made things kind of awkward for awhile, since I saw these people on a regular basis. Now, obviously, I don’t think anyone was actually mad. People just enjoy insulting strangers on the internet. That’s how the internet works. I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now.

From the start, Taherwatch was a doomed enterprise. Without any new Taher content, there wasn’t much to keep us going. Jack and I made a first-person photo essay of Taher coming back to the dorm and murdering me, which was fun.* After that we just sort of ran out of interesting things to say. We didn’t have a lot of ideas once the “Hey our roommate is gone” concept got stale. The guestbook feud also kind of diminished the enthusiasm of our fanbase.

*The climax was a picture Jack took of his arm, as Taher’s arm, holding a kitchen knife out as if to stab me while I cowered in fear.

Sometime during all this, Jack and I decided that we should call Taher and ask him if he was ever coming back. Jack had the phone, so I didn’t hear what Taher said exactly, but he was noncommittal. However, he didn’t object to our idea of turning his bed into a kind of couch and using his dresser drawers for ourselves. We definitely didn’t mention Taherwatch. At some point, one of Jack’s friends saw Taher on campus and told him about the site. He apparently thought it was pretty funny. That was a relief. The last post on the site was probably a month or so after it launched. I don’t remember if we made a goodbye post or just sort of abandoned it or what.

Jack and I occasionally talked about what Taher might think of Taherwatch. We had his phone number, we could have called and asked him if it was OK or something. That was never an option–we were both kind of afraid of him finding out about it and thinking we were both huge jerks. He would have been right for thinking so. Taherwatch was kind of mean. We never said anything mean about him, but the whole concept of making a website about someone without telling him was probably a bad idea. It’s certainly not something I’d do today. And if we did do it today, we’d probably get prosecuted for cyberbullying or something. In retrospect, even though I don’t think we offended Taher and I don’t think it had any impact on his life, I feel bad about the whole episode. I didn’t feel bad about it at all at the time. I think that has a lot to do with how the internet has evolved since then. From our perspective Taherwatch was just a little joke that turned into a big joke. We didn’t know anyone else with a website, the internet wasn’t yet being used as a forum to anonymously harass people, and the whole thing felt then to be a lot more innocent then than it feels now.

Taher did drop by the dorm a couple times after Taherwatch died. He liked how we rearranged things after he left, and we hung out and watched TV or whatever it is we were doing. I never got a good answer for why Taher left. I never asked. He certainly never volunteered anything, and I didn’t want to push him. I just assumed he liked living at home more than living at the dorm. I don’t blame him. The dorm sucked.

On the day of my last final that spring, Jack and I had a bit of a party in our dorm room. Jack had already finished his exams and we were both heading home the next day. We had a lot of people come over, and of course we made sure to invite Taher. While I was taking my exam, Jack got a quarter barrel of beer and snuck it up to our room in a laundry basket. Then we took the mattress off of Taher’s bed and converted it into a beer pong table. My exam that day was at 3pm. My dad was in town to pick me up. I had plans to meet him for dinner at 5. I raced through the test and got home by 4. The room was pretty full. I don’t remember talking to Taher, or much else, but he was there. I pounded four or five beers and headed out to dinner with my dad. That was a great day. The next morning pops and I got in the car and drove the twelve hours home. I never saw Taher again.

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3 Responses to “Taherwatch”

  1. Dustin October 22, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    As I recall, the flame war actually started with someone fully unaffiliated with the situation making a random, inflammatory comment for no reason. That was trolling before anyone knew what it was. One group of friends blamed the other and vice-versa.

    Also, I remember the last post. It was either you or your roommate officially “calling it” with a time of death and everything. Good times.

    • thepensiveyears October 22, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

      Glad you remember. I wish I had archived it somehow. If only I had internet skills.

  2. Vito October 23, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    I loved the spot on description of the use and importance of AIM during that point in time.

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