by Hank Leukart
August 8, 2000
A visit to Bill’s house
Experiencing an intern donut with Bill Gates.
Bill Gates’s house as seen from Lake Washington
EDMOND, Wa. — It’s tough to resign yourself to mediocrity. Most Americans spend their years in school learning how to be individuals, how to be leaders and how to make their mark on the world. But in the end, the problem is that there’s simply too many of us. The reality is that we cannot all change the world, because there’s not enough room for two of Bill Gates, or two Presidents of the United States, or even two “West Wing” actors to play the President of the United States.
But don’t tell this to the 100 Microsoft interns that accompanied me to Bill Gates’s Lake Washington mansion last week. For many, the intern party is the Holy Grail of the Microsoft internship experience; some go hoping to discuss their plans to rule the universe with Bill, others want a taste what life is like with $78 billion (29% of all circulating U.S. currency), and still others only hope to ponder life’s meaning on Gates’s dock overlooking Lake Washington with a glass of white wine.
Regardless, each attends comfortable with the idea that because he is one of only a miniscule number who have visited the house, he has risen above mediocrity — if only for a moment — and has tasted the ideal toward which so many American schoolchildren work. The comfortable feeling stems not from Gates’s immense wealth, but from his ability to make his mark on the world.
And so the extravaganza began. About 100 interns piled into a few buses that took us to a mysterious church parking lot on the east side of Seattle where chauffeurs in small vans then shuttled us, following a strangely convoluted path, to Gates’s house. Upon arrival, we inched down the mansion’s long, steep driveway enveloped by a jungle of green ferns.
After seeing the enormous 6,300 square foot concrete garage, we arrived under a large wooden canopy, and after stepping out of the van, we found ourselves inside the house at the top of a steep, carpeted staircase. As we walked down the 92-foot long, 84-step staircase amidst chatter and nervous jokes, we saw electronic, mutating art lining the walls and a large room outfitted with beautiful wood and glass furnishings.
After passing a luxurious meeting room with comfy-looking couches and a chic bar with “Star Wars” playing on a flat-screen television overhead, the spell was broken for a moment as confident interns tried to schmooze their way into getting over-21 stamps on their hands — yes, even at a party at Bill Gates’s house. Of course, Bill (his caterers, anyway) would not allow it.
Past the bar, a large doorway lead to a gorgeous “backyard,” with perfectly-groomed flora, a beach and dock, a small climbing gym for Gates’s daughter with a miniature climbing wall, a basketball court, a boathouse, a guesthouse, a flowing river, and a Jacuzzi — you know — all the normal backyard necessities. Suddenly, 100 interns were let loose on a nerd’s dream: the ravaging of Bill Gates’s backyard.
Of course, the numerous security guards were attentive, but even they seemed to take some delight in watching so many twenty-somethings who had been deprived of their E-mail for too long stick their heads to the glass walls of the house’s residential area to see the mammoth indoor pool. Those inside the house must have felt like they were trapped in a fish bowl.
After the especially tasty catered cuisine, Bill bravely walked out onto the lawn to mingle. Or at least, he tried to do so, when only after a few steps outside the door, he was mobbed by a donut of interns. This, the moment everyone had been waiting for, was exactly as bizarre and unnerving as I had imagined. Interns tried desperately to one-up each other and impress Bill with their strenuously well thought-out and ultra-interesting questions.
They grilled Bill on topics such as the X-Box (Microsoft’s new Playstation-like game system), cryptography and water skiing. Many became visibly irritated when one intern seemed to monopolize too much of Bill’s attention. Most of us — those either having too much pride or too much fright — stood in the background, avoiding the pools of drool surrounding Bill in front of the rabid group. As Bill rocked back and forth while answering questions (he tends to do so when he becomes excited), he looked surprisingly un-billionaire-like, with a pot-belly, ketchup stains on his shorts, and his repeated use of the word “super.”
But no inquirer doubted him, surely thinking they were indeed being given a window into a life of influence. Maybe they were. But as Bill stood, trapped in an intern-donut, it became obvious that his universe-ruling powers were not going to rub off on those standing next to him.
Knowing I would only embarrass myself with my question about the notable lack of quality free orange juice in the Microsoft coolers, I decided to avoid the situation altogether and walked out onto the man-made beach.
As the sun set, a group of ordinary people on a small motorboat floated by, none paying attention to their destination and instead gluing their eyes and binoculars on Bill, his house and the interns. I imagined them wondering about my identity and unexpectedly became a bit nauseous about my new lack of privacy. Suddenly, I was the one in the fish bowl.
I silently pondered how many of these boats floated by each day, and I thought that being the center of the universe maybe isn’t as good as it sounds. But, then again, it’s tough to resign yourself to mediocrity. WB