Back around 1991-2 era, I joined an on-line community. Or rather, I started participating in a Usenet newsgroup called alt.folklore.urban, the core membership of which was turning into an on-line community, pretty much before the idea of “on-line community” had been invented. We cognoscenti called the newsgroup “AFU”, and the core of the core were known as “the hats” or “old hats” (or later “Best Mates”). One of the first “old hats” was a guy named Phil Gustafson. He was funny, he was smart, he made wicked puns, and he was part of the memes of the group (one of which was that Phil would “rearrange your diodes” if you didn’t behave). He travelled to all the real life meet-ups (which at the time were almost always on the west coast) and it was frequently his descriptions of these meet-ups that had the rest of us rolling in the aisles and wishing they’d have some out this way.
Over the years, I weaseled my way into this group of “hats”. Like any big group of people, we didn’t all get along perfectly with each other, but each of us liked enough of the other members that we could tolerate the ones we didn’t like because so many of the ones we liked also liked those ones. If you get what I mean. And unusually for an on-line community spread across the world, we met many of the other members off-line (or “IRL” as the kids say) as well, often travelling long distances. But even for this group, Phil stood out as a person who would be willing to travel long distances for these meet-ups.
I met another “hat” named Vicki Robinson, fell in love and eventually we married. Not the first time two of the hats got married, and not the last either, but certainly before people “meeting on the internet” was a common thing. We had a tiny wedding, and though we would have liked to invite all the hats to the wedding, we didn’t have room so we invited a few to represent the group, and Phil was one of them.
Over the years, that group of people spent less and less time on the original Usenet newsgroup, as Usenet deteriorated in a mass of spam and trolls and idiots, and more and more of our daily interaction was on a couple of very busy private mailing lists. I hear on other mailing lists complaining when the volume hits 4 or 5 emails a week – these mailing lists sometimes hit “gusts” of over a hundred mails a day, especially if one of the members was having a problem or was celebrating some wonderful life event.
So why am I telling you all this? Well, yesterday one of the Best Mates found this article about how Phil had been found dead in his bed and alerted us. The author of the article had used the occasion to do a set piece about the lonely old hermit dying alone and unloved. And the people who’d read the article and not known Phil had left comments continuing that meme. But then those of us who had known Phil stepped up. (If you read that article you should really click the triangle so you can see the comments in chronological order, and you can see the sudden change from the people who were buying the narrative to those of us who knew him.) Phil had been found with his computer on, and I’d like to hope that he’d just read some email from our group or been playing poker with his on-line poker buddies or was otherwise interacting with one of his groups of friends before he passed away.
As well as Phil’s friends correcting the record in this article’s comment section, we stepped in in a more practical sense as well. One of us who lives nearby contacted the coroner, and found out that the coroner didn’t have next of kin details. Phil didn’t write effusively about his family, he wasn’t that sort of guy, but over nearly 20 years of continual email correspondence, we had a few details about his family including his brother and sister’s names, approximately where they lived, and in the case of the brother, what slightly unusual branch of Judaism he practiced. From that, it was fairly easy to find a phone number for his brother’s synagogue and then for his brother, and one of our number called him and broke the news. I’m happy that Carl could have received the news from somebody who knew and liked Phil instead of a coroner. Anyway, thanks to us, Carl and the coroner are now in touch with each other.
Phil had been a classmate of Tom Magliozzi from Car Talk at MIT, and when Tom mentioned him and his Volkswagen on Car Talk, Phil had told us some more of the stories, including the bits that will never be on the radio. So a couple of us independently thought to contact the Car Talk people to let them know about Phil’s passing.
Meanwhile, Phil’s Facebook wall, which he’d never posted to himself, is alive with his many friends expressing their thoughts about him. We’ve also been discussing some other form of on-line memorial for him, because, not surprisingly in a group of people who got together on-line in the days of 24 lines of 80 characters in black and white (or black and amber) text, some of his oldest friends are the sorts of curmudgeons who don’t “do” Facebook. Well, like I said he pretty much didn’t “do” Facebook either.
I’m going to miss Phil. He wasn’t always the warmest or the most touchy-feely of people, but he was a great person to know and I feel my life slightly emptier without him.