The name has been changed to protect the afflicted.
* * * * * * * * * * *
In a dingy room in the back of a Coral Gables pool hall, a furtive group of type-A behavior victims sit, fidgeting, in their chairs. The first speaker of the evening is about to begin.
Some of them are smoking. Others are drinking coffee. Some carry hip flasks full of Jack Daniels or other calming liquids. They try to make small talk, but the topic of discussion keeps coming back to the same theme: Why the millennium bug is "a problem," but not that big a problem. Surely not a huge problem. Not the kind of problem that Gary North says it will be.
"Sure, there will be bankruptcies," the assistant manager of a local branch of a large multinational bank says to the guy next to him. "Medium-size banks will be in trouble. Small banks are as good as dead. But our New York office has big bucks. Throw enough money at a problem, and you can solve it, right? We all know that. The Federal Government has been built on that principle, and it works OK, doesn't it? So, after we're compliant, we'll just buy up those noncompliant banks for pennies on the dollar. No problem."
The guy next him has all of his life's savings invested in a medium-size bank. "But how can a big bank swallow a small bank without swallowing its bad computer code? How can the big bank's compliant computers keep from getting reinfected with the small bank's noncompliant code?"
He reaches for his hip flask. "And what about the depositors in all those small banks? Will they be hurt?"
"No problem," says the local banker. All accounts are insured by the FDIC up to $100,000."
"But I read on North's site -- I mean months ago, not recently -- that the FDIC isn't compliant. Neither is the Treasury Department. How can the FDIC insure the nation's banks if it isn't compliant? How can the Treasury back up the FDIC's promise? With what?"
The banker looks down at his feet. "Yeah, I saw that, too. That guy North is a menace to society. The government ought to shut him down. I believe in free speech and the first amendment and all that, but there are limits, you know."
At that point, the first speaker of the evening comes to the microphone.
"Hi. I'm Billy. And I'm a Northoholic."
Group: "Hi, Billy."
"I'm really grateful for these meetings. I can come here and tell my story and not feel ashamed."
Group: "Tell us your story, Billy!"
"I began going to North's site last summer. At first, I was just curious. I had heard about it. I planned to limit myself only to the stuff on banking."
"But then, last September, I clicked GOVERNMENT. That led me to WELFARE PAYMENTS. Then it was MILITARY. By that time, I couldn't stop. I tried. I just couldn't."
"Every night after work, I began coming back to his site. My wife complained, but I told her I was doing it for her and the kids. Then I started doing it at lunch breaks. Last week I found I was on North's site by 7:30 in the morning. I'd come in early to the office. I hadn't told my wife why. I knew I had to do something. If you start going to North's site as early as 7:30 in the morning, you've got a problem. A big problem. That's why I'm here."
Group: "We're with you, Billy!"
"What I need is someone I can call on the phone, any time of the day or night, someone who used to get onto North's site twice a day, three time a day, but who has cut back to only once a week."
Group: "It won't work, Billy. You have to go cold turkey."
"But it's not easy. The media are now picking up on y2k. I'm starting to see brief reports on national TV. Not many, of course. Maybe a five-minute piece with Peter Jennings. Tom Brokaw might give it three. Only Dan Rather has avoided it completely, but how long can he hold out? How long can any of them hold out?"
"And then I saw a reference to North's site in the New York Times. The Times!!! The electronic version even had a click-through to his site. Instinctively, I clicked it. I didn't think. I just clicked. I had sworn off North's site for four days. But I clicked. And there it was, staring me in the face. 'Gary North's Y2K Links and Forums.' It looks so harmless. No graphics. No Real Time Audio. No Java. Just text. Plain Old Text. People are lured into this, not suspecting what North can do with text."
"I thought to myself, 'I'll just check out banking. Nothing else.' I just wanted to know if the banks are going to make the Federal Reserve's next reporting deadline. I wasn't looking for a silver bullet or anything. Just a reporting deadline. Besides, I thought, maybe the Fed has done something official. Maybe it has issued a report. Maybe it has a new video on y2k awareness. Something. Some good news. I swore I wouldn't read North's introductory remarks, where he makes the latest official action look ridiculous. I'd just click straight through to the document. It was 9:15 a.m."
"The next time I was aware of anything, the cleaning lady was in the room. Everyone in the office had gone home two hours earlier."
Group: "We've been there, Billy. We know."
"I've tried everything. I used to send e-mails to him, telling him he's a fraud, telling him to read old Jonathan Edwards sermons on God's judgment, telling him anything I could think of to make him stop, make him take down his site. I even used four-letter words. I started used lots of periods...in between...words. Someone told me that's part of power communicating."
"Then I noticed that I was capitalizing some words. I mean the whole word, not just the first letter. Then whole phrases. You know what it means when you capitalize whole phrases in your e-mail?"
Group: "Bad netiquette, Billy."
"Not just bad netiquette. It made me look like a red- hot. You know: a fanatic. A man who was losing control. First it's all caps. Then it's [he looks pained] . . . it's . . . other bodily functions. I began worrying about my control over my precious bodily fluids."
Group: "Get control, Billy. You need to get control."
"But I couldn't. I couldn't. I kept going back. I kept telling myself, 'I can quit whenever I want to. I just don't want to.' But I did want to. I wanted to quit more than anything on earth. But I couldn't. Last week, I realized what had happened to me. I had become a Northoholic."
Group: "Welcome to the club, Billy!"
"So I thought I'd come here. I need guidance. I want to know how to quit. I want to hear stories of how someone has quit, and quit for good. That's why I'm here. I'll sit down now. Maybe someone with a personal testimony of hope will come up and tell me that I've got hope, too."
Billy sits down. Nobody says anything. Twenty-five men begin to squirm. They look at their shoes. Then, as happens every week, one by one, they start looking at their watches.
One of them thinks, "Maybe Greenspan has said something hopeful."
Another one thinks, "I'll bet the Bank of Boston has begun testing by now. I'd sure like to find out."
Another one thinks, "Maybe they've got a fix at Florida Light and Power."
More fidgeting. More silence. Then one by one, they stand. "Well, goodnight," one of them says to no one in particular. "I've got to get home to watch the playoffs."
The man next to him says, "Oh, yeah, the playoffs. I'd forgotten. I've been too busy watching the PBS series on the history of public sanitation. They're doing sewers tonight. I'd hate to miss it."
"The history of sewers?" asks Billy. "That sounds great. "Would you mind if I come over and watch it with you."
"Uh, well, this will be Sewers, Part II. You really need to have seen Part I. Maybe you can come tomorrow night. Besides, my wife hasn't vacuumed yet this week. She'd be upset if I brought someone home unannounced."
"Well, can't you call her?" Billy looks frantic. "I need to spend a night with a normal family, doing normal things. I need to see how someone who used to be addicted to North's site has broken free."
"Well, maybe tomorrow night. No, let's make it a week from tonight. After the meeting. That'll be good. OK?" He picks up his folding chair, folds it, and stacks it against the wall. Then he walks out of the room. They all do, one by one. Billy stands there. Alone.
And he thinks to himself, "I wonder if there's anything new on embedded chips."
He picks up his chair, folds it, puts it against the wall. "Next week. I'll come back next week." But he knows he won't.