If the Dallas telecom and high-tech boom of the '90s was one long, fabulous, damn-the-torpedoes party, Gregg Wetterman was the glad-handing master of ceremonies.
Ceaselessly smiling and goofily amiable, Wetterman was the founder and driving force behind Geekmeet.com, which drew techies together in a whirl of mixers and bashes and cocktail parties where job tips and fat salary offers were tossed around like drink orders.
Now the party's over. The other night, Wetterman sat to one side in a cavernous nightclub nursing a Chivas and a Camel, glumly watching a sparse crowd mingle at his annual Big Geek Santa Event. Two years ago a couple of thousand people hobnobbed at Geek Santa; this year just a few score showed up to eat cold pizza and half-heartedly trade business cards before heading for the doors.
"During the heyday, presidents of companies -- I mean decent-sized companies -- and network support guys all hung out together here," Wetterman said wistfully. "As things have hit the fan, there's a lot less of that. We're still in the shakeout phase here."
In the 1990s, Dallas developed one of the largest agglomerations of telecommunications firms in the world and laid a reasonable claim to being the Wireless Capital of the Universe. Nearly every big player in telecom manufacturing is here in force, including a number of gigantic foreign firms whose American headquarters -- Nortel, Fujitsu, Ericsson, Samsung, Alcatel -- are in a corridor just north of Dallas in suburban Richardson.
By the reckoning of many economists, the Dallas-Fort Worth area grew into America's second-largest technopolis, trailing only Silicon Valley in terms of output, employment and economic scale. The semiconductor itself was developed near here at the company that became Texas Instruments; technology seemed a part of the region's birthright.
But now the brio and swagger of the boom years are gone, swept away in the technology crash and replaced by a grim landscape of home foreclosures, vacant office buildings, empty parking lots and thousands of anxious, angry white-collar workers facing their second consecutive Christmas with no jobs and little income.
As the tide of telecom cash and arrogance has receded here, it has left a residue of despair and bitterness that has touched churches and marriages, even language. So many people have lost their jobs in telecom and technology fields that the word "unemployed" has been deemed impolitic; it is being gradually replaced by the gentler "in transition."
The semantic makeover has done nothing to cushion the impact on individuals or the overall business psyche of the area, which most agree is in the dumps for now despite the remarkably diversified local economy.
"At a minimum it's been a very humbling experience for the business community in north Texas," said Huntley Paton, publisher of the Dallas Business Journal. "For a while it looked like this region had so much going for it -- our location in the middle of the country, a great business environment, pretty good tax climate, short flight to either coast. It wasn't necessarily that Dallas was recession-proof, but the prevailing thought when things started going south was: Whatever happens nationally won't be as severe here. And if anything, what's happened has been more severe here."
Wetterman himself, a 38-year-old systems engineer, has been laid off three times in just over two years, most recently by a technology newspaper that went belly-up last winter. Once the party czar of the go-go years, he has reinvented himself as a secular minister to down-and-out techies, trying with mixed results to find jobs and raise money for hardship cases.
"I've been standing on the corner with my hand out crying 'alms for the poor,' " he said. "The problem is: I'm raising money for other people, and I don't get to keep any of it. I'm a little stretched myself."
So are many others. Of 200,000 or so technology jobs in the Dallas area two years ago, at least 30,000 have been lost, according to the Metroplex Technology Business Council. What intensified the impact is that so many of those jobs were in a single sector, telecommunications, and in a relatively compact area: Richardson.
The layoffs, which began in earnest about 18 months ago, have given rise not only to an entrenched legion of jobless workers, but also to a cottage industry of job placement companies, networking associations and church groups trying to help them.
"If you want to be unemployed, this is the best place," said Lisa Miller, who runs a large networking and support group for laid-off tech workers called Careerconnection.org.
Miller's organization, sponsored by the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, is designed as a clearinghouse of job leads and practical advice, dispensed on the Web, in a big weekly open house and in dozens of small weekly meetings organized geographically and by professional specialization.
At one such midweek session recently, a half-dozen middle-aged men, all of them unemployed information technology workers, huddled around tables in a back corner of the Atlanta Bread Company, a coffee shop in Richardson. Over steaming cups and Danish, they introduced themselves and gave "two-minute presentations" -- quick spiels summarizing the ups and downs of their careers and their current job goals.
There was some practical advice, a few leads and some matter-of-fact discussion of the odds facing job seekers in an employment market where hundreds of resumes are often submitted for a single opening. Then, prodded by a visitor, the talk switched to personal sacrifices and household cutbacks. What had been a low-key but businesslike discussion suddenly turned gloomy.
One man, Todd Wilson, a squarely built 33-year-old who lost a $68,000-a-year job as a systems engineer with Nortel 14 months ago, said he had put his motorcycle up for sale and was thinking of moving back in with his mother.
Scott Russell, 35, a mustachioed computer technician with 14 years of experience, said he's been "living off my family" since being laid off a year ago.
Then Marvin Brooke, the oldest of the group, spoke up. A heavyset, poker-faced man in overalls and moccasins, Brooke, 59, said he lost his job as a systems administrator at EDS a year ago. He said the Texas Workforce Commission, a job retraining agency, refused to pay for him to take a class, insisting he was too qualified and should be able to find a job.
His only recourse, Brooke said, was to make ends meet by shuffling debt among credit cards, taking advantage of no- and low-interest deals as they arose. "I've become a master at transferring debt on credit cards," he said.
For a moment, the group fell silent. Then Wilson spoke up.
"You know, this is really sad that this conversation has turned to credit card talk," he said. "It just says something. . . . We're supposed to be talking job contacts and so forth. And now here we are talking about how we can roll the debt around."
Miller, the upbeat head of Careerconnection.org, confessed that her own husband is expecting to be laid off shortly. Nevertheless, she said she was surprised that the conversation had turned to personal debt. "Usually people don't want to talk about this," she said. "People are too proud."
In some cases, veterans of technology firms have abandoned the field altogether.
Neil Willoughby, a 60-year-old former information technology executive who found himself unable to land any job that fit his credentials, got a real estate license at a community college.
And Dick Nash, who went through four small telecom firms in four years, gave up the industry and recast himself as inventor and marketer-in-chief of the Leak Frog. Small and green, it is meant to detect leaks behind toilets and beneath sinks -- and rescue Nash from an industry that he believes promised too much and delivered too little.
Not many have Nash's knack for novelty and ebullient self-promotion. For most who have lost good jobs, and remained out of work for a year or more, the problems have mounted, affecting their relationships with friends, spouses, even God.
In interviews, several local pastors said many of those who lost jobs were turning to churches for succor, prompting a renewal of faith. But some others have become angry with God for their reversals of fortune, the pastors said.
"It's been discouraging, disillusioning, scary for a lot of people," said Jeff Jones, associate pastor at the Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano, a large, nondenominational church in a suburb just north of Richardson. One measure of the hardship in Plano is that home foreclosures in the area have more than doubled over the last year.
"When people are fat and happy, their felt need for spirituality or God is pretty low," said Jones. "In the '90s it was easier to be arrogant, to go it alone, and maybe it was more fun. Now, it's tough. I think everybody at some point blames God."
No one is predicting when the worst of the economic trough in Dallas will be over. But a number of economists say the seeds of a new techno-boom, fueled by the superabundance of skilled workers and the area's entrepreneurial spirit, are to be found in the shadows of the current hardship.
Donald Hicks, a political economist at the University of Texas at Dallas, said that 43 new telecom firms had opened their doors around Dallas since the current downturn began in April 2000. "When the music stopped, we were left knee-deep with some of the best talent in the world in one of the lowest cost-of-living high-tech centers in North America," he said. "So a lot of people will stay here and generate the next round of innovation, often out of necessity. . . . We'll see a lot of the future spawned here."
For many out-of-work techies, though, the most pressing question about the future is whether they will be able to find work in the coming weeks and months.
"A lot people got caught up in the river of gold, and maybe we'll see that again," Wetterman said. "But your typical geek who sits in the corner and programs may not know how to deal with the ebbs and flows."