At least a couple of readers of this blog guessed that something was wrong when the Ten Cool Things About the New Girl blog entry that I wrote last week vanished. They were right, but they probably had no idea how wrong things went. I’m going to tell the story — with names changed and a few non-essential details omitted. I’m trying to balance telling my story with protecting people’s privacy. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded.
Then I’m going to take a week-long holiday from this blog. I’m annoyed and exhausted, I have a considerable load of work to take care of, and after you’ve read what appears below, you’ll probably agree that I’ve earned it.
Not What She Appears to Be
Among the cool things listed in the Ten Cool Things About the New Girl entry were:
- She went to high school at the hoity-toity Trafalgar College in Montreal
- She graduated from University of British Columbia with a degree in computer engineering
- She worked as a webmaster at Alliance Atlantis
A day after I posted the entry, a reader of this blog sent me an email telling me that everything I knew about New Girl was wrong, specifically:
- She did not graduate from computer science at UBC
- She did not go to high school at Trafalgar College — she doesn’t even have her high school diploma
- She does not work at Alliance Atlantis, nor is she a Web programmer
- There’s a long line of people who’ve been lied to or taken advantage of by her
I was shocked. In a year and a half of writing The Adventures of AccordionGuy in the 21st Century, I’ve never received any kind of crank message related to a blog entry.
“She’s not the person she claims to be” sounds more like a line of dialogue from a Hollywood thriller, not real life. In spite of my incredulity, I couldn’t write it off as some kind of prank. Whoever wrote the letter knew too many details about New Girl to just be some random person playing a joke. Was this person telling the truth, or was this someone with a personal vendetta against New Girl?
As luck would have it, I know someone in the Web department at Alliance Atlantis. I gave her a call.
Me: This may sound strange, but I need to know if someone works in the Web department.
Friend: That doesn’t sound so strange. What’s this person’s name?
Me: It’s [New Girl’s name].
Friend: Never heard of her. Is she new?
Me: She’s worked there since sometime last year. She told me that she couldn’t bear to see The Two Towers because she worked late nights on the site for three weeks and just sick of the whole thing by the end.
Friend: I’ve never heard of her. Look, let me check the company directory…nope. There’s only person with her first name, and she’s in Finance. Who is this person?
Who is this person, indeed.
For the first time in a very long time, I experienced that Horrible Sinking Feeling. Someone — either New Girl or the author of the email — was trying to con me. Worse still was the fact that so far, the facts favoured the stranger.
I must have read and re-read the email at least a half-dozen times before coming to a decision. I knew that I was too deeply involved to be objective and decided to make a sanity check. I phoned my friend Leesh in New York. She’s a dear friend whom I’ve known for ten years and has seen me at my best and worst. I figured it would be best to call a friend with loads of common sense who was far removed from the situation to be impartial and unaffected by any fallout from the situation.
“The thing that bothers me most,” I said after I telling her the story, “is that one of them is trying to screw me over.”
“Look at it this way,” she replied, “who has more to gain from it?”
Meeting the Whistleblower
I decided to go ahead with my plan. I emailed my informant, whom I’ll refer to as Whistleblower, asking if we could meet in person. It would be one thing to make these claims in a faceless medium, but something completely different to do so face-to-face. If that person was lying, I figured my schmooze-fu would be good enough to spot it.
I got a quick reply. Whistleblower was willing to meet me, and even provided a contact phone number. This was good news and bad news: good because it lent more credence to the possibility that Whistleblower was not yanking my chain, bad because it meant that the claims about New Girl were true.
We arranged to meet at Sneaky Dee’s. I arrived early and stood near the entrance so as to be easily spotted. Whistleblower, being a reader of my blog, knew what I looked like, but I couldn’t say the same.
This is such a spy movie thing, I thought. I’d laugh if the reason for all this wasn’t so craptacular.
Ten minutes later, Whistleblower arrived and we ordered drinks. I didn’t know about Whistleblower, but I knew I’d need at least one.
The story Whistleblower told me meshed with New Girl’s, but in all the wrong ways. Whistleblower, it turned out, knew New Girl from the days when they both lived in another city. While in that other city, New Girl was taking courses towards getting a high school equivalency diploma. She never completed them.
Then Whistleblower followed with a series of identity theft stories. New Girl would take online photos of various goth girls and use them as her identity in various chat rooms. She’d chat up gothguys and, in some casesm, convince them to fly up to meet her. One poor guy came incredibly close to doing just that, but the person she was impersonating caught wind of this and warned him in the nick of time.
Then there’s this little matter:
Whistleblower: Has she shown you photos of a niece and nephew?
Me: Yeah, I’ve seen them. Cute kids.
Whistleblower: They’re not her niece and nephew, they’re her son and daughter.
Me: (sounds of choking on Guinness)
I won’t go into the details here, but New Girl left for Accordion City two years ago, and the kids were put in the care of Children’s Services.
For an hour and a half, I listened to Whistleblower. I tried to keep my calm-even-during-a-crisis demeanor even though it felt as though icy daggers were being shoved into my heart.
Whistleblower recited a list of people whom I could contact to double-check these claims. There seemed to be a long line of people whom New Girl had screwed over in one way or another. In the terms of Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, New Girl has serious negative whuffie.
Whistleblower also told me that a number of friends reported seeing me and New Girl — “Isn’t that New Girl, making out with the Accordion Guy? Does he know?” The accordion might have saved my bacon again.
Whistleblower must’ve seen the look on my face — geez, I must’ve looked pathetic just then — and decided change the topic after a pause. “So…you play accordion, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, “you wouldn’t believe the kinds of things it gets me into.”
At the end of our meeting, I paid for the drinks. Whistleblower objected, but I said “Hey — you’re a complete stranger, and still you stuck your neck out for someone you know only through a weblog. You could’ve stayed uninvolved, and you could’ve decided not to meet me, especially during a snowstorm. Thanks. I owe you big time.”
Whisteblower left and I went to use the washroom. Afterwards, as I left the bar, the waitress stopped me — I was so unnerved that I’d forgotten my umbrella at the table.
Pull it together, I thought to myself, there’s serious business to attend to.
I arrived at the cafe where New Girl had gone to meet some mutual friends. She greeted me with a kiss, after which I said “Could I have a word with you…alone?”
We took a table in the quietest spot I could find. I told her that I’d met with Whistleblower. At the mere mention of Whistleblower’s name, her face darkened.
New Girl: [Whistleblower] doesn’t know a thing. She gets her so-called “facts” from someone who has a grudge against me. That person will say anything to make me look bad. I can’t believe that you’d take the word of a stranger over your own girlfriend!
Me: Your photo album: are those pictures of your niece and nephew, or are they actually your kids?
New Girl: What kind of lies has this person been telling you?!
Me: Do you work for Alliance Atlantis?
New Girl: Of course I do! I’m a webmistress there!
Me: Not according to my friend who works there. She’s in the Web department, and has never heard of you.
New Girl: It’s a big department.
Me: Come to think of it, didn’t you say that the team working on the Two Towers website was just you and some other guy? That’s a small team for the site of one of the biggest films ever.
New Girl: Maybe it’s because I was a contractor and not a full-time employee.
Me: She checked the company directory. You don’t exist there. And c’mon, a contractor? Then how can you be on sick leave?
Sick leave, I thought, a perfect excuse for not having to go to a non-existent job. I’ve been played.
New Girl: I can show you proof. I’ve got pay stubs. I’ll show you tomorrow.
Me: Prove it to me now. Are you a Web programmer?
New Girl: Yes!
Me (very calmly): What’s the difference between HTTP GET and POST?
New Girl (taken aback): …uh, what?
Me: GET and POST. What’s the difference?
New Girl (looking somewhat rattled): You…You’ve got to be fucking kidding.
Her body language changed to a more defensive stance. I leaned forward.
The Old Columbo Trick
At this point, even after all the evidence that had been presented to me, I still had the tiniest bit of hope that everyone was wrong about New Girl. I needed to hear an admission — either intentional or accidental — from New Girl herself. If I kept the pressure on, she would either cave and admit everything or make a mistake.
Me: I’m not kidding. C’mon, if you’re really a Web programmer, you’d know this. This is straight out of chapter one of “Web Forms for Dummies”.
New Girl: I refuse to answer this question. Such a simple question…it’s…it’s insulting!
Me: Answer it, and you’ll shoot such a big hole in Whistleblower’s story that I’d have to believe you. And trust me, right now, you look like the liar..
New Girl: I won’t answer it! I know the answer, but you still won’t believe me if I give it to you!
Me: You know, if you accused me of not being a programmer, I’d be dropping mad computer science on your head. I’d be saying “Get me in front of a machine! I’ll write ‘Hello World’ in half a dozen languages!”
New Girl: But I’m not you!
Me: And you’re not a programmer. You’re a damned liar.
I guess I just dumped her, I thought. This is not how I planned to spend Thursday night. I walked out of the cafe. New Girl, as I expected, chased after me.
New Girl: Look! I’m upset! My head’s a mess and I can’t think technically right now! But I promise you, tomorrow I’ll get all kind of stuff from my place to prove it to you.
Me: You can wait until tomorrow to get proof? I can’t. Why not answer my question now, and save us both time and aggravation?
New Girl: Please, baby, you’ve got to believe me…
Me: I want to believe you, more than anything, but how can I? Answer the question, please. Give me a reason to believe you.
New Girl: I can’t. I’m too much of a wreck. Look — I can show you all my papers from University! I kept them all!
I decided to use a trick I’d learned from an old episode of Columbo. It was a stupid, cheesy 70’s TV detective show trick, but it was my best shot at getting to the truth.
Me: So you really did graduate from computer engineering?
New Girl: Yes I did, from UBC!
Me: And you took the “Algorithms” course?
New Girl: Of course!
Me: And you have all the papers you wrote?
New Girl: Yes! I kept them all, and I’ll show them to you tomorrow!
I imagined what kind of excuse she’d have when the papers mysteriously “disappeared” the next day. It was time to set up the pieces for checkmate.
Me: I want to see the one we always called the “Hell Paper” at Queen’s — the mandatory fourth-year paper. You know the one, where we prove P = NP?
New Girl: I did that! I proved P = NP! I placed near the top of the class, and the professor used my paper as an example!
Me: You proved P = NP?
New Girl: Yes!
I’m not going to bore you with the details of what the whole “Is P equal to NP or not?” question is, other than the fact that it’s one of the Great Mysteries of computer science. From a mathematician’s point of view, solving it would be a bigger deal than solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. It’s so big a deal and so hard a problem that there’s a US$1 million reward to the first person to submit a viable proof.
Simply put, I’d just broken up with either the biggest liar I’ve ever dated or the greatest computer scientist who ever lived. Somewhere, Alan Turing’s coffin was experiencing fantastic rotational torque.
I’d outsmarted her into lying and giving herself away, just like my childhood literary hero, Encyclopedia Brown.
It gets worse
The next day, I decided to give New Girl’s supposed home phone number a ring. I was beginning to get the feeling that it wasn’t actually hers. A woman answered the phone.
“Hello,” I said, “my name is Joey deVilla…”
“The guy with the hat and the accordion,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “I’ve been meaning to have a word with you.”
And so began an even stranger conversation. The apartment wasn’t New Girl’s, but this woman’s. The woman’s musician friends had seen me with New Girl at Kensington Market, where I sometimes busked and performed at open mike nights.
“And there was night you were at Grafitti’s with her…”
“Last Thursday.” How is it that everyone but New Girl can provide evidence to corroborate their stories?
“So the stories about her fat cats and the noisy birds…they’re not her pets, they’re yours?”
She then told me about how she and New Girl met, at rehab meetings. Rehab?!
And later, since New Girl had no place to stay, she let her stay on her couch. They grew closer and became lovers. Lovers?!
And then came the story about how New Girl tried to hide her pregnancy. Pregnancy?!
Apparently there was a third kid, born shortly before I met New Girl. The kid was adopted a few days after its birth. A couple of weeks after having given birth, she was flirting with me. I felt ill.
I spent that night drinking copious quantities of Irish Stout.
“Dude,” said my old buddy George the following day, “you were saved by your blog!”
It’s true. I posted a gushy entry about New Girl, someone saw it and came forward to tell me the truth. Maybe the Blogger or Moveable Type people should print up stickers and T-shirts that read BLOGS SAVE LIVES. I’d buy one.
As a programmer who used to work in the P2P world and is about to start developing software to socially connect people, I used to look at issues such as social software, trust networks, determining the truth without a trusted third party, identity and reputation in a rather abstract way, kind of like the way a non-chef watches programs on the Food Network (“Hey, an omelette made with an ostrich egg! Wouldn’t that be neat to cook?”). Now that I’ve experienced the real-life version of all these concepts, I’d like to look a little more seriously into their programmatic equivalents — might as well turn this lemon into lemonade.
As for me, I’m unharmed and New Girl didn’t rob me. I’m really feeling incredibly craptacular, very creeped out, and — perhaps as some kind of defense mechanism — mildly amused at the ridiculousness of the situation. I’m proud of the fact that somehow I managed to keep my head mostly together during this descent into TV-movie-of-the-weekdom. I’m also exhausted — this kind of crap is incredibly draining, even for Mister-Play-Accordion-All-Night-Long. I’m taking a one-week vacation from blogging to get caught up on work, sleep and life in general.
To all my real friends out there, thank you for telling me who you really are.
To New Girl, all I can say — and I mean this with all sincerity — is “seek professional help”.
To Whistleblower, I owe you a debt of gratitude. You probably saved me from a lot of misery.
And to all you ladies out there, I’m back on the market. Only those without skeletons in their closets need apply.
See you folks in a week.
Get this story in dead-tree form
This story ended up in an anthology titled Never Threaten to Eat Your Co-Workers: Best of Blogs in 2004. I once had a copy, but someone — whom I can’t remember now — borrowed it and never returned it.