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The Odd Loose End

Many years ago, in the late nineties, (and how awful is it that that counts as “many years ago?”) I was living in an apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, and we got the Pioneer Press.

The Pioneer Press was frankly unremarkable as newspapers go, but this was in the days when internet news was not quite there yet, so I got the paper.

One of the sections was called “Bulletin Board” and I suppose the best analysis would be that it was like a primitive internet forum. People would call the phone number and leave messages, these would be transcribed, there would be random topics that you could leave your message under, and the best ones were put in the paper. Mostly it was humor, mostly it was reader’s-digest-level humor, occasional heartwarming pet stories and so forth.

But sometimes they were genuinely moving, and I found myself reading it, because I was living very far from home and I was lonely. And none of my friends would have understood why I was reading these non-threateningly normal little stories, or understood that many of these people seemed lonely too.

One of the people who wrote in regularly went by the handle “Joybubbles.” If I was reading their missives now, I could tick off with ease the signs of someone living with depression and fighting their way through it, all the hallmarks of someone wrenching happiness out of a universe that wasn’t inclined to give it easily, or at all. At the time, most of what I knew was that even their happy missives seemed very fragile and uncomfortable.

Eventually the internet took over newspapers and I let my subscription lapse and mostly thought no more about it.

Years later, I heard an obituary. It was for Joybubbles.

Who turned out to have been Joe Engressia…the father of phone phreaking.

There was a Radiolab episode on it, which just played, which is why I’m thinking about this now. (I may have talked about this before, but it’s been awhile.)  It’s always strange to learn that someone you’ve known on a forum, say, happens to have some significance in the outside world. You get used to it, but it’s occasionally odd.

But this still just blows my mind utterly—here was a blind kid with a Dickensian level Horrific Childhood, who started listening to the dial tone for comfort, and eventually figured out how to place free phone calls by whistling the carrier tones—and this was this person writing these occasionally poignant, child-like posts showing up in the newspaper fifty years later.

I don’t know. It’s not that it’s that odd, I suppose—everybody has to turn up somewhere. Everyone has a backstory, if not so strange or complicated or sad. But this moves me more than I’d expect.

Maybe it was just that it mattered to me once, and those are not memories I poke often, so they haven’t grown any armor over them. Not that they were bad, particularly, or good, particularly, they just were what happened. And this was an odd loose end from those days, and I still have no real idea how to feel about it.

Maybe in forty years, I’ll be writing odd missives to the internet and someone will be astounded to learn what else I did with my life.

Life is stranger than we expect.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

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For people who want to learn more
Joybubbles in Wikipedia

Long Distance Radiolab, from the episode Escape!

Edited at 2013-07-28 08:22 pm (UTC)

I've had a tangentally related experience, with discovering somebody I knew as a teen (and who was... strange, but not necessarily moreso than most of my friends at the time) had grown up to be the leader of a small and very bizarre cult, and had pretty much become an expert at brainwashing and using people. That was... weird. Really weird. I still don't know how to feel about that one.

For good or bad, we tend to judge people In The Moment. Internet lives intersect in minute portions.
"Wow, that person is an idiot! Oh man, that comment is beautiful! Cool! That person did something awesome!"

We all have back stories.
How many people stick around to learn them?

I was amazed, many years later, to find out that the difficult-to-deal-with verbally abusive guy in my acting class in college was in fact one of the top ten net.kooks, known for chasing people around and online flaming them (I just happened to have met him first OFF-line, which was apparently rare).

Life is stranger than we expect.

Oh, yes. I guess it's a corollary of Haldane's Suspicion:
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

I don't recognize the name Joe Engressia, but I remember phone phreaks. In fact, my cousin was one until the day it became either illegal or traceable, I forget which. Which reminds me of a happier anecdote:

At dinner the first evening of our honeymoon, the waiter came over and said there was a call for us, and if we wished, he would bring us a phone to take it at the table. My bride and I looked at each other and I said "It's either bad news or Cuzin Luke" (my nickname for him). And when I took the receiver and said "Hello?", there he was on the other end: "Hi, Cuzin Jake. Where is Ocho Rios, anyway?"

We listened to that episode, too. Fascinating and poignant.

Though I have to admit that, being the huge spaceflight nerd I am, the Voyager segment was my favorite...

Maybe in forty years, I’ll be writing odd missives to the internet and someone will be astounded to learn what else I did with my life.

That sort of already happened around my house, when I was talking about you commenting on my journal (about weeds or bugs or gardens or whatever) and my stepdaughter was like "YOU KNOW URSULA VERNON?!"

Somebody I went to school with turned up failing to overthrow an African government,

I think it is a six degrees of freedom thing - there is enough extraordinary in the world that we are all within two or three steps of it - if we have our eyes open and remember the little bits of the unexpected we stumble across. Call it a Fortean attitude life.

FYI, the Pioneer Press is still alive and kicking over here! ;) The Star Tribune is bigger, but I'm pretty sure it's still a legit second place. Heh.

This post is really...I don't know if lovely is the right word? But it hits in someplace really good and thinky to read, so thank you for writing it.

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