March 11, 1996 12:00 PM


Last month a state highway crew in Novato, Calif., made a startling find: a stringy-haired homeless man in a roadside tent, hunched over a laptop, surfing the Internet, thanks to a high-powered battery that had recently vanished from the crew’s cherry picker.

The man, arrested for possession of stolen property but later released, was 22-year-old Neal Berry. Though employed as a $l,000-a-month shipping clerk at a local mail-order company, he preferred to put his money into hardware rather than housewares. “Rents were just too high,” says Berry, who had been homeless for a year before he was discovered. “Besides, I’m shy. When I meet people I can hardly talk to them. How I make friends is on the computer.”

Berry went digital five years ago, when he lived in a group home for troubled teens in Sepulveda, Calif. A friend introduced him to online adventure games, and he learned more by reading books. “I’m not a hacker,” says Berry, who recently earned his high school equivalency degree, “but I know more than most people.” Berry’s aptitude doesn’t surprise his mom, Donna Berry, 56, an Amtrak reservations agent from Riverside, Calif. At age 3, he unscrewed his crib. “He always had his own way of doing things,” she recalls.

For nearly a year, Berry saved a portion of his paycheck and, in December, spent $2,144 on a laptop and $500 on a 28.8-Kbps modem, which he connected to a $350 cellular phone. Fifty bucks a month gets him unlimited local dialing. He began spending 6 to 12 hours a day as He soon struck up a cyber-romance with an 18-year-old woman from Eugene, Ore., who invited him to come live with her and her mother. He recently accepted. In Oregon, Berry hopes to find a job in computers and, yes, to rent an apartment when he can afford it. “If I ever win the lottery,” he says, “I’ll buy an apartment building and charge only enough to pay the bills. Landlords are too greedy.”


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