ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Phone Stories: THE OFFICE —

Like any relatively sketchy activity, you learn “the rules” either by osmosis, logic, or the hard way. Your buddies involved in the same stuff as you will happily give you helpful advice, but they’re often just grasping into the same darkness as you. Such was the case with Phone Phreaking, which required the use of a telephone to do things, and which, therefore, could track you back to your telephone, and potentially your home, with an unknown amount of ease.

The convenience of phone hacking from home always struck up against the relative safety of phreaking from outside your home. In an ideal world, you didn’t use phreak codes from home, didn’t try to hack them from home, and didn’t really do anything from home. Life, however, is rarely ideal.

My compromise to this, especially in the more pressing situation of tying up my mother’s phone line, was to take over a telephone booth near my house in Brewster, NY, do all my stuff there, and then write down all my learned knowledge. This telephone booth came to be known in my mind as “The Office”.

The Office was pretty amazing as far as phone booths went in 1984; for one thing, it looked like it dated back to the 1950s, with a sort of art deco design and multi-colored paint job, not to mention the classy word TELEPHONE etched in a pretty font on each side. This was definitely not a standard Western Electric phone booth, and it wasn’t blue or adorned with a Bell Telephone logo anywhere on it. I have to assume that at some point in Brewster’s history, they had one of the independent telephone companies that hid under Ma Bell’s left buttcheek for a hundred years. This phone company was kind enough to place this quality telephone booth at an intersection that represented the crossroads between the towns of Brewster and Carmel, and it was all about 200 feet from my house.

As Cell phones dominate the world and phone booths are ripped out by the thousands each year, it will be harder and harder to really know that feeling of standing in one, especially if you were doing something illicit. In a full, glass-lined phone booth you are both encapsulated and vulnerable, most markedly at night, when you would be standing in what is essentially a lit square box that can others can see in but which you can’t see out. The booth had no sort of heating or air conditioning and so dead of winter or hottest summer day represented an unpleasant experience. These negative extremes were balanced by being inside during a heavy rain on a summer’s evening, when you could feel like a one-person capsule sheltered against the reality of the world. Most people these days are used to being able to sit in a car and conduct telecommunications without taking their hands off the steering wheel, and without (generally) being disconnected or asked to insert more money. Your car is mobile, yours, and subject to your whims. A telephone booth is none of these. Yet, in a strange way, I could start to feel like it really was mine, and that anyone who stopped into this gas station to make a phone call was using “my” office. It’s OK, I understood and didn’t raise a fuss.

I’d stand in The Office late at night, in the afternoon, or even the occasional morning, checking on my voice mailbox, dialing people who I wanted to talk to but didn’t want to get in trouble if they did, and always looking for new codes or numbers to try out. If it could be reached by a phone, it could be reached by a payphone; the tricks now in place to prevent access were not enforced then, and you’d get the occasional busy-out signal trying a weird 0-700 or other bizarre number, but these were exceedingly rare. With a tiny shelf inside the booth, I had a place to put my notebooks or pieces of paper and write out grids for scanning telephone exchanges.or lists of 976 numbers. (Both of these came from my time in The Office).

You can see the intersection on this map, and if you scroll up, you can see where my house was. Not too bad, in terms of distance. The pile of cars is what was a service station and The Office was in the parking lot directly south.

I say “was” because after I moved away, some entity took away The Office. I came by years later to see what had happened to my old neighborhood, and The Office was gone. Not replaced with something new; literally a slab of concrete where I had spent hundreds of hours of my teenage years. History, wiped. I never even thought to get a photo.

The Office had nothing around it but the two gas stations and a very busy road. It wasn’t leaning against anything, wasn’t under an overpass or covered with stickers from a nearby venue. It was its own thing, a classy, self-contained room that a young fellow spent his youth wiling away the hours in, trying beyond all reason to be somebody different, somebody more powerful, a unique force at an age when you feel anything but. All hangouts are places where someone goes to be themselves; mine just happened to take up 9 square feet of space.

It was a refuge against the crushing boredom of a teenager. It served me well, and protected me. I thank The Office for the part it played in my life.

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  1. Flack says:

    On the first floor of our building, down past the ATM, blood pressure and Coke machines sits a phonebooth. In the past twelve years I’ve never actually seen anyone use it; there are phones in every cubicle and even a few phones mounted in the hallway for general public use that people used instead. And, with the proliferation of cell phones, even those hall phones don’t get much use any more. About two years ago, whoever owned the payphone came and took it. And yet, the phonebooth remains. Empty. And I swear to you, if the thing weren’t sitting in front of a security camera, I’d figure out a way to get that beast back to Casa de Flacko.