Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Breakfast with Jeff Pulver in Baltimore

Baltimore's Hollywood DinerIn an out-of-the-way section of downtown Baltimore, at the crossroads of Guilford and E. Saratoga, almost touching the inside west of the JFX, sits an oasis of bygone days. Plentiful parking, brick pavement accents, and a rectangular hunk of silver and neon once serving as a movie set for Barry Levinson's Diner. The Hollywood Diner, to be precise, a little known eatery serving "Breakfast with Jeff Pulver."

I spot thirty or so people milling about inside as I enter the crosswalk. The place may have started off packed like sardines, but I'm more than an hour late, who knows? Thankfully there is now room to stretch and breathe. But then, I'm not intending to set any new world records. I'm here to network, have a good time, and press the flesh with THE Jeff Pulver, a larger than life Internet persona, start-up tech investor, and distributor of killer social tags.

Preconceived notions of his popular breakfast parties and the myth behind the man swirl about in my head. Who exactly is Jeff Pulver? Why do Internet movers and shakers flock to his gatherings? And more mysteriously, how did a person closer to my age than the majority of people filling this diner amass a Facebook friend network to put any Hollywood celebrity, real or fake, to shame?


After about an hour of making small talk and exchanging cards, opportunity comes knocking. The diner is emptying out and Jeff, dressed in a festive yellow Hawaiian shirt, turns away from the attractive brunette who's been occupying his time. It's my cousin, Greg, but no matter. Seizing my opening, I deftly move into Jeff's line of vision, introduce myself, and request a short interview.

"About how long will it take," Jeff responds quizzically.

"Oh, ten minutes tops," I surmise. Actually, I have no idea, but figure ten minutes is enough time to dig the essence of Jeff. We plop ourselves down in a corner booth complete with fake red leather upholstery, and briefly give each other the eye.

Immediately, Jeff whips out his camera. "Come one, give me a real smile," he implores.

But my front teeth are badly in need of repair, I'm reluctant to grin widely. At last he relents, sets the camera on the formica table, and our conversation begins.

Jeff Pulver became interested in the Internet back in 1993 when one word domains littered the landscape and Microsoft was a fresh oyster waiting to be cracked. Greater minds than I have recounted his tehnological accomplishments. Jeff harkens his humble beginnings to Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets, although for a technological illiterate like me, he might as well have said punch cards. His latest venture is an engaging aggregator of publicly available primetime television shows, aptly dubbed Primetimerewind.tv. The project is brand spanking new, still working out kinks, but already showing some promise. Unlike similar portals, it operates through remote embedding and is therefore akin to a traffic driver rather than stealer, at least as envisioned by Jeff.

But I want the juice. Why all the get togethers? Jeff, who is based in New York, travels great distances to pull off meets in different cities. What's in it for him?

"I suppose you could call it the Gatsby effect," he begins.

"What? Wanting to be the center of other people's world?" I am truly confused.

"No," Jeff counters, "more like creating something positive from bringing people together."

"How so?," I ask. "Give me a specific example."

"I'll give you two," he responds. "Dave and Ann over there met on my Internet show and now they've launched a new company. And at a recent cocktail reception, I was able to connect friends with a high tech start-up to venture capital."

Very cool. So, Jeff is a people person. Someone who experiences happiness by making other people happy. Let's face facts. It's not everyone who can assemble a crowd of impressive social media types.

"When did you first recognize your talent for making large-scale events happen?" This is an answer I can't wait to hear.

"I began as a D.J. playing parties and dances back in high school."

"High school? Where?"

"Great Neck North, Long Island, New York."

"Graduated?"

"1980," Jeff responds. My mind immediately shifts to disco.

"So, come on," I press. "as the D.J. you're the center of attention. You control the party. Wasn't it all a ruse to become popular? "

"No," Jeff disagrees with my interpretation again. "I look at it as an outsider coming into the inside."

Jeff Pulver an outsider? How can this be? "Jeff, are you married?"

"I've been married 18-1/2 years."

"Children?"

"Twin sons. Ages 14."

"Would you describe yourself as a person who is active in your local community?"

"No, not exactly," Jeff responds. "My community is the Internet. This is where I make my connections."

Looking around, even though the diner had definitely thinned out, I was struck by Jeff's ability to turn a "loose connection of pipes and tubes" into his own personal playground. I knew some of the people in attendance, but others I did not. Yet, all of them, in one way or another, were connected to Jeff. My ten minutes were winding down.

"If you had to sum up the reasons behind your success -- professionally, socially -- in three sentences or less, what would you say?"

"Fearlessness."

"Passion. Everyone needs to be passionate about something."

"And titanium balls."

Whoa. Nads of steel?

"Can I quote you," I ask?

"Sure. Go ahead."

I thank Jeff for his time and interesting insights. As soon as he pops up from the table to land with a lingering group nearby, for lack of a better title, Jeff's right-hand man, Geo Geller, ambles by. Geo is tall, lanky, and slightly quirky, a perfect fit with our surroundings. He is clad in a black beret, white jacket, and flaming red scarf. Long white hair, white beard, and white moustache complete the ensemble.

Geo is a true man of mystery, an artist/photographer/film maker, who delights in obfuscation. No matter how hard I try, I cannot pin this man down for a straight answer.

"Who is Jeff Pulver?" I query.

"Jeff is me," Geo replies. "I am the original Jeff, the original party organizer. Then I turned the reins over to him. I am the best respresentative of both of us when I am not you."

Okay. Left field. But getting back to Jeff. Can I dig any more dirt?

"Everything is a self-portrait," Geo posits. "A contradiction on the contradicting mystery man." Just at that moment, his iphone goes off. Man, I hate those things. A constant reminder of my aversion to new tech.

"Here, talk to this guy," he says handing off the phone my way. "He'll tell you who I am."

I follow his directives and burst into loud laughter. "I think he just called you a dirty tall white man. Any response?" Boy, is this interview off track.

"Insanity is a refuge from sanity. There's a fine line between mental illness and artistic talent." I think Geo is right on and nod my head in agreement. "To be a successful artist," he continues, "you need a certain amount of sensitivity. If you're mentally ill, you're too sensitive. That's why I volunteer at a mental health facility. To reconcile the two."

Love chipping away the mystery man's veneer. Geo's card labels him an insultant for hire. What other words of wisdom can I extract before I go?

"I am always comfortable wherever I am."

"I am responsible for all things irresponsible."

Drat. Back to the gobbledy-gook. Pity that, especially since we seemed to be developing some kind of a rapport.

photo of artist and his mother courtesy of Geo GellerWrapping up my time at the diner, I learn more about Geo's creative talents. Online exhibitions featuring sound photo portraits. Another exhibit Geo calls the "Invisble Man Series" transforms out of focus or obscured images of his mother into the focus of the camera.

I hope he doesn't mind me borrowing a mirrored image of him with his mom. I cannot resist. The portrait is stunning. Raw. Real.

Okay, it's time to rip off the social tags and name badge, and hit the road. The diner employees want to lock up and go home. Geo quickly snaps some pictures of me as I get up to leave.

Oh he's good, this one. Out of focus, my front teeth never looked better.


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