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Pranks for the Memories

By Joab Jackson | Posted 4/18/2001

1. Toilet-Paper Crisis: In the early '70s, the world's best-known "phone phreaker" was John Draper, aka Cap'n Crunch, a California kid who built "blue-box" tone generators that were used to gain free access to the telephone company's internal routing systems. Rummaging around the trunk line that led into the White House, Crunch and an anonymous friend found the line to the president's office. They also overheard the secret CIA code word used to summon then-President Richard Nixon: "Olympus." A few minutes later, Draper's friend called the presidential number, careful to hide his location with a path of multiple cross-connections. Someone sounding remarkably like Nixon answered. "What's going on?" the presumed president barked. The friend replied, "We have a crisis here in Los Angeles!" Tricky Dicky responded, "What's the nature of the crisis ?" "We're out of toilet paper, sir!"

2. The Tube Bar Tapes: This is where Bart Simpson got his crank-call ideas. In the late '70s, a crotchety geezer named Red owned the Jersey City, N.J., dive called the Tube Bar. Two wiseacres, John Elmo and Jim Davidson, would call up Red and ask for an "Al Kaholic" or a "Ben Dover," only to have Red burst out in profanities once he realized he was again being made to look foolish. The duo caught it all on tape, long before the likes of the Jerky Boys made a living pulling such stunts.

3. Party Line: Here's a good one: Simultaneously call two numbers at random, then conference them together without letting either party know what's going on. Confusion and hilarity ensue.

4. Psycho Chick or Opportunistic Dude?: When Dallas resident Mark McElwain broke up with his girlfriend, the story goes, she left more than 50 agonizing, increasingly desperate messages in his voice mail. And so he posted them on the Web, to instant acclaim. As morally reprehensible as that may sound, what's even worse is that the whole thing might have been a hoax to draw viewers for banner ads, as the news site NewsTrolls suggested. The site noted that McElwain registered the domain name for his site before some of the messages were supposedly even created, and the whole site is tied into a pretty sophisticated (and annoying) ad-serving mechanism. McElwain, in an interview with me, maintains he's on the up-and-up; read and judge for yourself.

5. Tom Mabe's "Revenge on the Telemarketers": Anyone can plot a crank call in advance, but it takes an agile mind to cleverly respond to an incoming call. Louisville, Ky., comedian Tom Mabe has that mind. He started taping calls from telemarketers, who annoyed him endlessly, and whom he made a point of annoying back. He now has a cottage business selling the resulting tapes. They're a hoot. When someone calls selling cemetery plots, he pretends to be on the verge of suicide (but then asks if the company has "a payment plan"). When a law-enforcement agency calls for a donation, he complains how his daughter was thrown in jail, drawling in his best redneck voice, "A girl can't get prettied up and try to make a couple extra dollars on the corner?"

6. The Pope Line: Another early-'70s blue-box escapade, in which future Apple Computer co-founder Stephen Wozniak used one of these units to call the Vatican. As "Henry Kissinger," he asked to speak to Pope Paul VI, but chickened out and hung up before His Holiness was awakened from his nap.

7. Radio-Wave Terrorism: A crank flier put up by a conceptual artist--or one from the Federal Communications Commission? An unusual flier was found posted in San Francisco last September. This "Notice of Interruption of Cellular Service" warned against using cell phones and shortwave radio "[i]n order to assure public safety from suspected acts of radio wave terrorism." Was this flier some mock warning, one that protested the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which expanded the powers of the FBI? Or was someone with FCC letterhead just sick of overhearing cell-phone conversations everywhere? And how can one terrorize the populace with radio waves, anyway?

8. and 9. Cell-Phone Eavesdropping: Cell-phone calls are notoriously easy to intercept on scanners and old televisions. So it's not surprising that broadcasts of cell-phone frequencies started appearing on SHOUTcast, the Web service that allows users to run their own radio shows over the Web. SHOUTcast has seemingly cracked down on these clandestine . However, in 1999, San Diego techno musician Spacewürm published an entire book made up entirely of intercepted cell-phone calls. I Listen: A Document of Digital Voyeurism offers a disturbing glimpse into a society that, judging by its cell-phone conversations, is overly occupied by sex, greed, heartbreak, and discontent.

10. Prince Albert in a Can: A guide to the dozens of other cranks calls caught on the Web.

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