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.

  • reply Will "scifantasy" Frank ,

    I don’t know what it says about me that I got to the fifth paragraph and said “wait, the Joybubbles?”

    (Besides that I’ve read a lot about the history of hacking.)

    • reply Alan Wexelblat ,

      Wow, that’s… something. I happened to hear that Radiolab episode as I was driving last Saturday and it was sort of sad and moving.

      In a universe long ago I happened to meet the phreaker who became known as Captain Crunch because he was the guy who figured out the toy whistle in the cereal could do that for him.

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