In absentia

Internet

A friend whom I'd never met disappeared off the face of the earth six weeks ago. Alex McIntire was an administrator at Florida State University. One Tuesday he told his wife and daughter that he was going to visit his mother in hospital and drove off. There has been no trace of him or his car since, and he has taken no money from any of his accounts. But this is Miami. The cops have more glamorous and important things to do than to search for a middle-aged man who has left neither corpse nor crime report behind.

I knew him from the Well, a conferencing system in San Francisco, where we both spent unconscionable amounts of time. It's what used to be known as a bulletin board, except that it is accessible for the entire Internet; and it has been going since 1986. Almost everything that could happen has happened there since it was founded as the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, a distant spin-off of the Whole Earth Catalogue. In 12 years on-line it has been lapped by the future so often that it is almost fashionable again. It has been tremendously futuristic, desperately broke, bought by a millionaire, profiled in Wired, abandoned by the smart people and finally bought by Salon magazine, which is nice for everyone.

Conversation there, someone said recently, is noisy and disjointed, like listening to skeletons copulating on a tin roof who break off from time to time to drill the night with automatic weapon fire. An outsider might merely suppose it's full of the sort of passionate and cranky show-offs who had the whole of the net as their playground ten or more years ago. About the only thing you need to be happy there is a passion for language. Among these people, McIntire stood out as an unfeignedly nice man whose put-downs were never cruel or crude and who had read almost every book worth reading, in both English and Spanish. He taught me the most extraordinary things, for instance that the Miami Spanish for "did you page me?" is "?me bipiaste?".

It's extraordinary that I know so little about him yet felt so strongly when I heard of his disappearance. I have an idea, from something he once said, that he is extremely fat. He has a 13-year-old daughter. He had taught in all sorts of primitive places, from Montana to Afghanistan, and was frighteningly knowledgeable about them. But these kinds of half-glimpses are like the way one knows a favourite author: they seem like accidents of his personality, rather than essentials.

The essentials were the unfailing public wit and private kindness and his ability in almost everything he wrote to make the world seem a more interesting place that needed further exploration. I don't want to exaggerate these things. In as much as the Well is a real place, it is as full of indifference and ignorance as real places are. Many people on there did not notice McIntire, did not feel they knew him and couldn't see what the fuss was about when the news finally broke. But then the Well has a notional population of around 8,000 now. That's larger than the town where I live, and I can't think of anyone here whose disappearance would convulse all their fellow citizens with grief.

It took a little while for the news to appear. His wife did not want publicity. Eventually his friend Jon Carroll, a columnist on the San Francisco Chronicle whom he had met on the Well, announced it there and, later, in his column. The Miami Herald ran a short piece, memorable for the brutal language of the police spokesman, who talked as if he were showing off in the canteen: "He disappeared. That's not illegal. You're allowed to disappear in this world . . . His wife may not like it. The university would have liked notice. But if you want to go, you can just go."

This hurt everyone who read it and knew him. It suggests that he did something mean or cowardly, which is quite out of the character we had come to know. Yet as his absence has grown longer, we have come to hope that he did just crack and run away, because we would rather have a live coward than a dead hero. At the same time, it seems less and less likely. He has left no trace on his bank accounts or credit cards since he vanished. A collection has been got up among his on-line friends for his family, as they find themselves in an immediate practical mess, because his salary is not legally accessible. It's these envelopes, posted through a third party, then passed back across the continent to his wife, that make me feel that there is a real community there, wherever "there" is.

If by some mischance, Alex, you read this, the answer to "?me bipiaste?" is: "Yes".