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When Kremen was about 12, in the mid-1970s, they built their own computer and won the science fair.With personal computers not yet on the market, the only way to have such a machine was to cobble one together from a kit.The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise, published by Simon & Schuster.[Find the book on Amazon.] Gary Kremen nervously lingered inside his grandfather Manny’s barbershop, ready to bust his move.Hopping on his bike, he pedaled quickly away through his run- down neighborhood, which had earned the nickname “the Toilet.” He zipped past the baseball team gorging at Lou Malnati’s Pizza, the kids playing putt-putt at the Bunny Hutch Miniature Golf, the solemn commuters on the 210 bus to Chicago.He turned off the main road, as the brick buildings turned to modest homes with dads washing their cars and kids shooting hoops outside, a left here, a right there, until he peeled up the driveway of a pale-pink thousand-square-foot ranch house on a dead-end street by the train track, tossed his bike to the ground, lumbered inside over the mustard-yellow and brown thick shag carpet, past the flowered couches covered in plastic, down the steps into the wood-paneled basement, locking the door behind him, reaching into his shirt, and slipping out his coveted bounty: a But the magazine wasn’t for him, at least not after he was done with it. And his business was selling the boys of Lincolnwood the hard-to-get stuff they wanted.When they wanted Hubba Bubba, the delectably soft cubes of bubble gum that had recently hit the market and were flying off the shelves, he bought up cases with his lawn mowing and snow shoveling money, then pawned them, piece by piece, to kids at four times the price he paid for them.With his profit, he diversified into baseball cards, dealing to the Cubs fanatics on the schoolyard. If he was going to get there, he’d have to do it the only way a young nerd from the suburbs could do it at the time, by using his brains.
It was also, as his friend Mark Zissman observed, the only one that seemed to have been made by a kid without the help of a parent.
An anti-Semitic teacher had been coming on to girls, telling them, “Here’s a dime, call me when you’re 18.” One afternoon, Kremen struck back, using his access to get on the teacher’s computer.
He then secretly typed out a message calling his teacher a “fuckhead” — and had it print out on all the student homework assignments.
But while candy fads and baseball stars came and went, there was one thing that never went out of style — porn magazines — and those were among the hardest things to get of all. Fortunately, brains were a given in the Kremen household.
The technology didn’t exist yet to meet the illicit demand. The only way for kids to get dirty pictures was to steal them, or hand over money to the one guy in town who had the nerve, if not the entrepreneurial ambition, to do it for them, Kremen. It was something deeper, the same thing that drove any successful person: the conviction that a new frontier beyond the Toilet awaited, where his wildest dreams could come true, if only he could find them. His parents — Norman and Harriett — had used their own to make a comfortable life for Gary and his rebellious younger sister, Julie.
The better Kremen did in the club against the other kids, the more access he’d get to the machines, and Kremen soon had what was considered “rock star” privileges — with more time and access than anyone.