The Great Unwired

A reluctant laptop user joins the Wi-Fi generation.

By Pappi Thomas January 4, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Seattle Met

IT WAS NOT LONG ago that I was on the outside looking in at Seattle’s laptop community, those ubiquitous keystrokers who spent hours hunched over glowing screens in the city’s ubiquitous cafés. Suspiciously, and a little enviously, I wondered how my life would change with a portable office at my disposal. When I finally bought a laptop of my own, I was first afraid to remove it from its box, then afraid to take it out into the world. Or rather, I was afraid to introduce my new laptop-owning self to the world. I wasn’t a “laptop user.” I was a softer, more organic variety of worker, the sort that curled around a legal pad rather than sitting straight up, arms hovering stiffly above the keyboard. I was no Luddite, but I had long resisted technology’s incessant and ineluctable tug into the future.

Now I am rootedly “one of them.” I traded in my legal pad and canvas shoulder bag for a laptop and sporty backpack with extra padding and a reinforced neck yoke. Instead of the grounded residence of a cubicle or office, I live the edgy itinerant life of contractors and high-tech tradespeople. I plant myself at my favorite café table, the one not too close to the ceiling fan, and other customers, annoyed by the lack of available seating, glare as I nurse a cup of coffee well past the point of self-respect. “Oh well,” I think. “That’s the laptop life.”
When I began doing technical writing as a contractor for Microsoft, a friendly programmer heard I might be in the market for a laptop. I told him I was considering a shiny red Dell and he urged me not to buy it, promising me I could get “a rockin’ HP” for the same price or less. He was right. Instead of a 1.66 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM, I ended up with a less sexy but more practical 2.20 GHz and 1.99 GB HP to rock with as I pleased. Unfortunately, the extra capability came with extra size and weight. When I heave my backpack onto my shoulders, I might as well be carrying an infant. At cafés, I look around at the other laptops and see ones that are more streamlined, more “rockin’” than mine. I assure myself that I have a powerful machine, chosen by a real Microsoft techie. I’d like to see their little antiglare screens show off a DVD so well.
Microsoft, that densest of laptop jungles, always enlisting more contractors than space to put them, encourages them to work remotely. The company doles out little Toshiba laptops as freely as pen, paper, and fresh Starbucks. I learned from observing the masters how to dandle and cradle my laptop, checking e-mails, perusing Web sites, polishing PowerPoint “decks” with one hand while walking—parental dexterity I didn’t know I possessed. I learned how to take meeting notes on my laptop, conduct interviews from my laptop, confirm office numbers and phone extensions (en route) with my laptop. Like most contractors, I never saw a printer and never needed an Ethernet cable.

"Free Wi-Fi" signs catch my attention like a discarded sandwich bag captivates a crow.

As someone without an Internet provider at home, I have become an expert in finding wireless connections out and about in the world. A “Free Wi-Fi” sign catches my attention like a discarded sandwich bag captivates a crow. I can almost smell an open wireless network or feel a divining itch in my knee, a quiver in my lip. “Yes,” I say, striding toward the suspected source, “I am certain there is wireless there.” Free wireless access springs up and dries up by turns, always unexpectedly. One learns to thank the gods for its existence and to refrain from cursing them when it fades. The appearance of my computer’s “online” indicator can feel like a supernatural phenomenon. Once as I sped home across the 520 bridge on the express bus from Microsoft, knitting up a few of the day’s loose ends, my laptop spontaneously connected to the Web. “What’s this?” I almost said aloud. The hairs on my neck stood up, and I felt a giddy rush in my chest. “The Internet on a bus?” I was sure the miracle had arisen from some Microsoft-Sound Transit “partnership,” but still I wanted to proclaim my incredulous joy to my bus-riding neighbors. They, of course, were already glued to their own computers.

The hairs on my neck stood up, and I felt a giddy rush in my chest. "The Internet on a bus?"

In my neighborhood, I choose my office of the day according to that morning’s mixture of mood and caprice. At Tully’s, the tables along the south-facing windows offer plenty of work surface but a blazing midday sun that renders the screen unreadable. The coffee refills are free, the hazelnut biscotti are affordable and tasty, and there are often free pastry samples on offer. But the chairs are ridiculous—a kind of safari style whose back resembles a pitchfork mounted atop gazelle horns, some part of which digs into my tailbone. Café Vérité next door plays better music, but on a cold day the draft from the entrance is unbearable. The Ballard public library offers ample seating for laptoppers, but the tables in the reading room are too high for comfortable keyboarding, the chairs are more like bowls with legs, and forget about concentrating near the children’s section during story time.

Despite the hassles of a nomadic techie’s life, I appreciate the consolation of community that comes of owning a laptop. Last week at my workaday coffee shop and then at the library, we “Laptops” commiserated about weak wireless signals, assisted each other with outlet locations, and performed that critical Laptop favor: “Will you watch my stuff while I use the bathroom?” And just yesterday I helped a Laptop newcomer boot up her machine for the first time and log onto the Internet, for which I received a hazelnut biscotti as payment. The coffee refill was free.

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