Daniel Gentleman orders an iced cappuccino at the Java Fusion coffee house in northeast Phoenix and immediately notices a pair of 13-year-old twin boys carrying matching PDAs and wearing familiar-looking ThinkGeek tee shirts.
"We shop at the same store!" says the 27-year-old Web site security engineer, playfully high-fiving the tech-obsessed eighth graders. With his shaved head offset by a considerable paunch, Gentleman ("It's the 32,000th least-common name -- I looked it up!") resembles more of a digital-age Curly Howard than a club-chic Moby.
Still, the openly geeky UNIX systems administrator, who works the graveyard shift for a Web-hosting firm, comes in holding hands with a hot-looking "sweetie," as he calls her, who clearly loves the sharp-witted techie for his mind.
"I never fell for that negative connotation some women have about nerds," says Karen Reed, a children's librarian for the City of Glendale. "I find what he's able to do with computers amazing. I wouldn't go out with somebody who wasn't smart."
Gentleman, who advises the 13-year-olds to keep working their geekiness to their advantage ("See? Chicks dig smart guys!"), admits he's even taken his handheld PDA along with him to bars to help him pick up girls. "I've never had a girl hit on me because she thought I had a cool PDA," he says, laughing. "But I have been sitting at a bar with a handheld and had some women show interest in me. It kind of weeds out the shallow, unintelligent people you'd want to avoid anyway."
Gentleman smiles, leans over and gives Karen an affectionate kiss. Surely being a nerd is not the social curse it used to be back in Jerry Lewis' or even Steve Urkel's day. But Gentleman says things used to be even better for his ilk a couple of years ago.
"We were a lot cooler before the dot-com bust, back when we were making all the money!" he chuckles. "Until a couple of years ago, the job market for tech people was just amazing. I got good, high-paying, high-level jobs very quickly -- sometimes a little too quickly for my own comfort, in fact. But it was good.
"Now, companies know that tech people are desperate for jobs, so they're able to hire highly skilled people really cheap. Last year, when I took the job where I currently work, I was hired on at literally half of what I was making two years ago. That hurts."
To keep self-esteem up, Gentleman says, a lot of techies have taken to exerting their identity, or "letting their geek show," by wearing the exclusionist tee shirts (Dan's favorite reads, "There are only 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary, and those who don't") and engaging in relatively adventurous activities like wardriving.
"I think it's more about flexing your creative muscle, and also just fighting boredom," he says. "The boredom comes from the fact that we used to be the people to be. Now we're scraping, just as everyone else is. We need something to do, but we don't have the money we used to have. So we'll take the gear we have lying around the house and have some fun with it."
Gentleman's wardriving setup is a particularly creative concoction: a Linux-equipped handmade computer compressed into a Hot Topic briefcase. "All together, this cost me about $500 to make," he says proudly. "I couldn't get a decent laptop for that price."
Like most wardrivers, Gentleman insists he just uses his elaborate mobile computer to detect the wireless access points he drives by without trying anything mischievous, like connecting to an open network and poking around. "But then," he adds with a wink, "you're not gonna find anybody who's going to admit to it. Even among the community of wardrivers, and even among the old-school hackers who tinker with computers and make them do inventive things, they never talk about it. If anyone has the ability to do illicit deeds from time to time, they don't admit to it anymore. The public consciousness is so high, no one wants to cop to being on the dark side of the Force. But I would say if I was hanging out with 50 wardrivers, chances are a good 10 of them hop on other people's networks and capture packets now and then."
It's a scary thought -- especially with all those disgruntled geeks out there still smarting from the hefty pay cuts following the dot-com fallout. With thousands of out-of-work computer guys driving around, sniffing out millions of open wireless networks, could the climate be ripe for a true Revenge of the Nerds?
"Oh, yeah!" Gentleman says without hesitation. "But it's probably not going to be the big mainframe-crippling disaster everyone fears. A good example was the recent case involving this guy they called the Spam King. He was the guy responsible for setting up the companies that send out about 50 percent of the spam messages people get in their e-mail. Made a lot of money with it. And there was a news story about how he just built himself a new $10 million home.