Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Nellie and Steve Case: "The piano man, man!"

You probably remember that classic scene in “Wayne’s World” where Wayne and Garth get back stage passes to the Alice Cooper concert and when confronted with the legend himself, a nervous Wayne, utterly overwhelmed squeaks out, “You big, me small.”

Yeah, a scene in the American cinematic grain right up there with Rhett Butler giving Scarlet the what-for in “Gone With the Wind.” But as contemporary sociologist, Wayne had it right. The world is divided into two parts – those who are big and those who are not so big, i.e. small.

I was reminded of this when I saw Steve Case peering out at me from the Wall Street Journal recently. Case is now pushing some phenomenally successful, money-printing venture called Revolution Health. You probably recall him as the head of AOL, as in this from a business admirer: “Few people have had the kind of impact on business and culture that Steve Case has. As co-founder of AOL, Steve Case led the charge to make the Internet an essential part of everyday life.” Frankly, that’s not too far off the mark. Sure, there was some bad juju with the monster Time Warner AOL merger in 2000. But the fact is, he’s a major entrepreneurial figure in modern times.

You see, I knew Steve Case when. When? I'll get to that. Let's set the scene for the last time King Webmeister saw your’s truly.

It's a hot, spring Saturday in spring at the Washington Freedom women's soccer game at RFK stadium The pre-game warm-up is going on and my sons and I are lounging back in our mid-field seats. Suddenly, I notice a tall thin guy, dressed expensively, who is making himself conspicuous because he’s standing on a chair in a nearby section, taking photos of the team warm-ups with a zoom lens that's about 3 feet long.

Why, look at ... I say to myself. It’s Steve Case, my old college buddy!

I'm in a jolly mood, but alas, looking a bit rough. This is just a crazy soccer game so I'm in a white, Art Carney-style undershirt and an old pair of my Army camouflage fatigues with paint specks on them. My three sons and myself wear newspapers on our heads, folded like a pirate hats to keep the sun off our faces.

I spring to my feet when I see Case lower the camera and shout out, "Yo, Steve!"

But let's talk about the past.

1978. Williams College. Nellie is in a big dorm called Mission Park and Case is on the same floor

Our paths cross during the next two years on a causal basis in the dining hall and also because we each are in campus bands.

Mine is a jazz combo called Hangin' 4 in which I play mediocre piano. Case is a singer in a rock band called "The The." Figure that one out. He’s a pleasant enough guy and he's savvy about music so we talk about that and our bands. He was also from Hawaii and so sometimes we shoot the breeze about surfing and beaches.

We eventually graduate and go our ways. I hear through the grapevine that Case is a salesman for a big corporation, hawking pizza sauce or ketchup or something like that. I, in turn, am hop-scotching around the nation, unemployed half the time, the other half working various low-paying, meaningless jobs.

Next thing I know, it's the late 1980s and Case has started some firm called America On Line, which deals in the "world wide web" and "e-mail." Since I am still randomly affixing stamps to envelopes and mailing out my resume to disinterested suitors, I cannot even comprehend what Case's business is all about.

I am told by a fellow dorm mate that Case had the email idea come to him because while selling the taco flavoring, or whatever, he traveled a lot and got bored sitting in hotel rooms. After a night in Toledo spent staring at the phone, he wondered that if you could send voices through that little wire, why couldn't you get text through there?

Suddenly, it's the late 1990s and AOL and Case are everywhere kicking tail and taking names. He's got some hot blond wife and an estate in Virginia that's bigger than the old dorm we lived in. Meanwhile, bouncing from hack job to hack job, I have, no kidding, a 922-square foot house.

2000 comes along and Case takes a dive with the AOL Time Warner merger, the then largest media deal in the history of mankind.

Then, several years later, on a hot spring day, suddenly here's some homeless-looking whacko in the stands, wearing a folded newspaper on his head, a half eaten hot dog in one hand, yelling out: "Yo, Steve! How's it going, guy?"

Well, Case looked over at me and immediately smiled uneasily. I'm of course expecting him to recognize me so as he continues to stare with this kind of worried, anxious look, I shout out, "Nelligan from Mission Park! The piano man, man!"

He looks almost frightened by now. He gives a faint wave of his hand and lowers his head and scuttles in the opposite direction from where I’m sitting, leaving me there standing as the folks seated around fall silent and just stare at me, almost sympathetically.

A smile is frozen on my face as the newspaper hat slowly slides off my head onto my seat. I sit down and mumble abstractedly to no one and everyone, "Heh, heh ... used to know Case in college ... same dorm and all ... probably a busy guy ... meets a lot of folks ... Jeez, is this game ever gonna start?" I take a disconsolate chomp out of my hot dog.

Of course, the whole game I silently ruminated on how things had worked out in this world without end, amen. Designer clothes Case, multimillionaire master of the Internet; Nellie and 3 urchins in pirate hats. Yep, me small. Hell, me tiny.

After the game, the sons and I are walking toward the parking lot and the eldest, Devlin, says, "Dad, who was that man you were yelling at?"

"Oh, just an old pal from college who was part of the Internet revolution and is worth about 250 million bucks."

"But he didn't say hi to you," Dev persisted.

"Well, young man," I said matter-of-factly, "he didn’t recognize me in this t-shirt."


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