Could you live your life on-line? Our reporter tried and came away with food for thought

I'm starving. Not just hungry. Actually starving. My last meal was a glorious mushroom-smothered hamburger, with fries. But that was yesterday. Since then, nothing. My head is throbbing, and my equilibrium is shot. I can't make a connection, logical or otherwise, between what I'm thinking right now and what I was thinking five minutes ago.

Here's my problem: even though I'm in a swank hotel near a modern city in a developed country -- on an expense account, for chrissakes -- I can't leave the room, and I can't use the phone. I'm trapped here for three days. But I'm not confined. Oh, no. I'm free, free as a bird, free to soar and swoop throughout the richest, most stimulating, most chock-full-of-goodies land imaginable. That's because I have my laptop computer with me and a connection to the Internet. Cyberspace beckoned. I answered. And now I'm in, way in. I'm living here. Sealed in for three days. Am I having fun? Oh, absolutely. I'm just starving, that's all.

Silly me. I was going to spend my time amassing vast armies of new friends, gazing awestruck at visual wonders, soaking up pools of arcana, while feasting on treats and delicacies from around the world. Instead, I've spent almost two days looking for a pizza, an eggroll, some crackers, anything. It has occurred to me that I might die here, lying in bed (the phone line won't reach as far as the desk) with my laptop on my stomach, in my underwear, which is badly in need of changing, I might add, but I can't change it because I haven't found anyone in cyberspace who will sell and then ship me a pair.

But I ramble. Let me start at the very beginning.

* * *

W hooo-hooo. Whooo-hooo. Whooo-hooo. "May I have your attention please! There is no cause for alarm. The fire department has been notified and will be arriving momentarily. Hotel management is investigating the cause of the alarm and recommends you remain calm and where you are."

Okay, hotel management, if you say so. When the alarm went off, I had just arrived in my room (in a chain hotel, hard by the interstate, outside a major East Coast city) and was settling in: plugging in my computer, dragging a chair between the beds because that's where the phone jack was, logging on to the Internet. I had packed light: besides the computer (a 486 notebook with a 14,400-baud modem), I had only the clothes on my back, my driver's license, and a credit card. Anything else I might need to sustain myself for the next 72 hours, I would have to extract from my computer. (I never imagined the hotel might burn down; luckily, it was a false alarm.)

By going on-line and staying there for three days, I hoped to answer a simple question: Is human existence in all its facets -- work, fun, love, sex, food, learning, spirituality, personal hygiene -- viable in cyberspace? People keep telling us what a rich and fertile place cyberspace is, how one day we may all end up living there. I wondered: "Can we live there now? What would it be like?"

I decided to get food out of the way. I began by looking for places that could feed me tonight, like local pizza joints or delis, with an E-mail address. Pizza Hut, I learned, has a pilot program in Santa Cruz, but I was on the wrong coast. I tried an outfit called Waiters on Wheels, based in San Francisco, and got this kind but not very helpful reply: "It's exactly the person in your situation that we are ultimately aiming to satisfy. Give us eight months." A service called Shoppers Express, available from America Online (AOL), promised I could place a "grocery and/or pharmacy order from home or office . . . at any time, and the delivery will be made in the afternoon or evening." Cool. Except that when I keyed in the hotel zip code (obtained from NYNEX's Interactive Yellow Pages on the World Wide Web), I got this message: "We are sorry, but at the present time zip code ___ is not in our service area." Just for kicks, I keyed in zip codes for my home, my three prior homes, my office, my college, and the town where my in-laws live. "We are sorry . . . "

OK, so food availability in cyberspace is a touch spottier than I'd been led to believe. I have no doubt that there are places in this world where an E-mail message will scare up an instant hot meal. I just didn't happen to be in one of those places. No problem. I'd just go to Plan B, scouring the Web for overnight delivery services. But I soon found that the pickings aren't much better there. The best I could do before technoexhaustion set in was Café Salay in Beverly Hills, which took my order for a brownie nut cake in a heart-shaped tin. Wonderful, except that Café Salay didn't want my credit card; it wanted the 21-digit number on the bottom of my bank check. That took a while to get (I had to send an E-mail home and then wait for my wife, Sara, to respond), and by then I had missed the cutoff for next-day delivery. Oh, well. Day after tomorrow. I'm not going anywhere. And so to bed -- unsure, for the first time in my life, where my next meal would be coming from.

* * *

From my journal: "7:57 a.m. Awoke with a nasty taste in my mouth, the consequence of not having brushed. Have a headache but am basically fine. Am determined not to make this a story about food. Goal today: to find something sweet and human and touching on the Net, to find a human soul -- also, to get some work done."

At the time I went into cyberseclusion, I had been talking for several weeks to a book packager about a project he wanted me to do. I liked his idea, but I wasn't sure I wanted to get involved. (I have a job, my kids are young, I'm plenty busy.) So far, I hadn't had much luck explaining myself on the telephone. Now, still in bed, the computer propped on my stomach, I tried again. In 20 minutes I had produced something that felt almost definitive -- my feelings, clearly expressed, in writing. Considered, like a letter; private and direct, like a phone call; urgent, like a fax. All in all, a perfect marriage of technologies, exactly right for the task at hand. Clicking on "send," I felt almost giddy, like a cyberworld uebermensch.

Later, I tackled the next business chore on my to-do list: confirming the fate of a Federal Express letter I had sent out the day before. At the FedEx Web site I keyed in the tracking number on the receipt and up popped my letter's itinerary, every stop on the journey from pickup to delivery, including the name of the person who had signed for it. I breathed a sigh, partly because by then I had encountered enough "Please wait . . ." messages and frozen screens and clogged caches and faulty connections to be amazed that anything on the Internet actually worked as advertised. But mostly it thrilled me just to know that out there among the gazillions of data bytes floating in cyberspace was a handful of packets assembled expressly for me. Not only that . . . but I had located one, had captured it, had brought it home. When you thought about it, it was damn touching.

Really, though, I had an awful time trying to be productive in cyberspace. I kept getting pulled off course by the magic of hypertext. I began in earnest. Thinking about that book project, I went looking for some market data. At a Web site called BookWire, I learned that U.S. consumers spent an estimated $23.8 billion on books in 1994. From there I was transported to a current list of religious best-sellers, compiled by Publishers Weekly, and an even more specialized list of evangelical best-sellers -- both mildly relevant because my book was to be at least in part about religion. But somewhere along the line I ended up in the World Wide Web Virtual Library, scanning the list of public-domain classics available on-line and finding Fanny Hill. That did it. I closed up virtual shop and settled in comfortably, alone with my screen. Time flew.

Emerging groggily from an 18th-century London bordello, I noticed that my phone message light was blinking. Well, well, must be my fruit basket, ordered that morning (1-800-FLOWERS) on America Online. I decided that checking voice messages, while technically a misdemeanor, was preferable to starvation. But then I faced an even bigger dilemma. Do I call the front desk (a serious crime) and have the basket sent up? Or do I leave the room (a felony) and fetch it myself? I chose to fetch it myself. With no cash, only plastic, it was that or stiff the bellhop.

The fruit was delicious but hardly a meal. By 9 p.m., more than 30 hours into my journey, I was eyeing the room-service menu greedily. I sought advice on-line:

IncWhitfor: OK, will you help me solve a problem?

MBUDZ: Sure.

YogurtCup: OK.

IncWhitfor: I'm in a hotel room in . . .

YogurtCup: And?

MBUDZ: Aaaannnndddd?

YogurtCup: Aaaaaannnnnndddddd?

IncWhitfor: For the past 24 hours my only contact with reality has been via the Net.

MBUDZ: You fell and can't get up?

YogurtCup: You must be proud.

MBUDZ: How come?

IncWhitfor: No, not proud. Hungry. I had hoped to live on-line, eat on-line, work on-line, see how far . . .

MBUDZ: What's the problem?

YogurtCup: That may be difficult.

IncWhitfor: . . . I could go. But the only food I've been able to get is a fruit basket, and I'm faint . . .

MBUDZ: Please call 911.

IncWhitfor: . . . with hunger. Do I give up, or order from room service?

Chance had brought us together only moments ago, yet already I felt this bond with my buddies MBUDZ and YogurtCup. I waited hopefully for their advice. Suddenly, a stranger burst into our cozy little chat room -- call him or her AJERK -- and blurted out: "ANYBODY WANT A GOOD F___." I ignored the creep, but MBUDZ and YogurtCup pounced, happily hurling insults ("You are sick-ooo," "Besides, you probably aren't UP to it"), forgetting all about me. Quietly, I left the chat room.

* * *

The woman who answered the room-service phone had the sweetest, warmest, most hospitable kitchen-wench voice I have ever encountered. First, I made her recite the entire menu (a food menu!) while I fantasized. Then I ordered. Swordfish. Spinach penne alfredo. Salad with peppercorn dressing. A bottle of beer. A slice of apple pie.

From my journal: "10:19 p.m. I understand the impulse to devour raw flesh.

"10:51 p.m. Ahh, much better. Had a wonderful dinner. Am now stuffed. Didn't even mind too much that my back was so sore I couldn't sit down to eat.

"11:57 p.m. Slipping between the sheets, the bed warmed by the heat of my computer."

* * *

For someone who hadn't shaved, brushed his teeth, or changed his underwear in three days, I was leading an amazingly active social life. Every time the man from AOL would break in with "You've got mail!" I'd experience a Pavlovian pleasure jolt. I had a tantalizing tête-à-tête (all about food, believe it or not) with a stranger who signed her letters "Peace. Janet" and liked to throw in a New Age aphorism by way of a p.s. ("Oh what a tangled web we weave," "Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.") Late on the second night, I was startled to hear from an old college friend, a newspaper reporter, who sent a live message that appeared magically and without warning in the middle of my screen: "I always heard losers lurked on the Internet all night," he said. We caught up quickly, traded gossip, and then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. Weird. Throughout, I exchanged letters with Sara, something we hadn't done for years. I wouldn't call them love letters, exactly; mostly we stuck to domestic-management topics -- kids, schedules, logistics. Still, it was undeniably romantic. Letters between lovers are precious, no matter the content, no matter the medium.

So I wasn't lonely. But I had plenty of other problems. Locating grooming items on-line, it turned out, was no easier than locating food. I came across a well-stocked shaving kit available for overnight delivery, but I gagged at the price: $59 plus postage and handling. Even on an expense account, you have to draw the line somewhere. I never found any clean underwear, either. Maybe if I'd had more time. Lands' End has an on-line catalog and accepts E-mail orders. But if you want express delivery, I discovered, you have to call or fax. Go figure.

* * *

I did get my brownie nut cake -- thank you, Café Salay. I could have eaten that for dinner the last night, I suppose, and maybe an apple from my fruit basket for dessert. But the real solution came to me after dinnertime on my last day. I found myself chatting with a friend on-line, and he asked if there was anything he could do for me. Well, yes, there was, I said, feeling saliva pool around my tongue. There was a Bertucci's pizzeria not far from my hotel, I typed, before reaching for my wallet and credit card. Half an hour later came a knock on my door -- pizza, salad, the works. Was this cheating again? Well, yes. But it was a milder form. I hadn't left cyberspace; I had just sent an emissary to the real world.

OK, so I failed. Still, I learned a valuable lesson. Cyberspace is all right. But if you go, pack a cooler and bring some extra underwear.