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The vanishing, underappreciated prank call

How the weird imagined landscape of the phone network shaped my adolescence

Kyle T. Webster for The Boston Globe

The other day, I came home to a phone book on my doorstep. I dropped it into the recycling bin immediately, pausing only to resent that I should have to do such a thing. Evidently, I’m not alone in greeting the phone book with a groan: most American households report using the phone book hardly ever or never; in communities where residents must opt in to receive one, only a tiny fraction do.

There was a time, though, when I saw the phone book not as a nuisance but as a treasure—when my friends and I could hardly believe that someone would just give the thing away. White pages in hand, we were artists, we were anthropologists, we were pirates of the high telephonic seas!

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OK, we were teenagers huddled around a chunky cordless phone, making prank calls.

Some 20 years later, prank calling still exists, sort of. There are websites that will anonymize your phone number and provide an automated voice to perform a scripted prank on your target; all you have to do is sit back and listen. But the classic prank call, a random number dialed out of a book, a kid making decisions while trying not to laugh? We didn’t know it, but our little hobby was already in its twilight in the mid-’90s, with Caller ID and *69 the first vibrations of the technology that would kill it.

Of course, we had no business doing it at all. Prank calling is at best an annoyance, and can be not only illegal—depending on what you say, and how often you say it—but quite awful. For people who’ve been on the wrong end, the death of the prank call would come as a relief. I know how they feel: Just last summer, someone called me and claimed to be holding my brother at gunpoint. The ringing of my phone startled me for days to come.

But as a former practitioner of a more lighthearted version, I can’t help feeling a twinge of loss at the twilight of prank calling. In popular imagination, prank calling tends to be regarded as either silly or sinister; the audacious ’90s cutups the Jerky Boys, or else the menacing baker in Raymond Carver’s iconic short story “A Small, Good Thing.” But for kids just playing on the end of a phone line, I’d argue the prank call has a formative importance yet to be appreciated. Rather than merely terrorizing individuals and local businesses, my friends and I...well, fine—mostly we were terrorizing individuals and local businesses. But in the process, we ended up learning something about the scope of the world, and got an unexpected education in predation and personal boundaries and power.

Not that we were in it for the edification. We were chasing a high: the surge of adrenaline upon dialing the number, the waves of anticipation with every ring, the momentary shock of hearing someone actually pick up the phone. The do-or-die moment in which that most innocuous of questions—“Hello?”—becomes a test of your fortitude. Not surprisingly, the romance with prank calling blooms and peaks for most people during adolescence, the period in which you start to develop a more nuanced sense of your ability to affect. The awareness that you can intervene in someone’s day (for good or for ill) is still relatively new at that age, and begs to be tested again and again.

In my case, these tests were most often conducted on unfamiliar names in the white pages. Poring over the listings, I had the feeling—epiphanic, and somehow sad—that the world was filled with so many people I would never know...unless I called them.

So I did call them. Then, typically, I hung up on them, collapsing into giggles with my coconspirators after sputtering a few inanities. But on one occasion, at least, we made a friend—the front desk clerk at the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City seemed as eager for conversation as we were, indulging our queries for days on end without ever involving the police.

That looming threat was, of course, much of the thrill. Is there a more exhilarating sound than the ringing of one’s own telephone immediately after making a prank call? Research has shown that the teenage brain is drawn to risk—compared with adults, adolescents are more tolerant of ambiguity and the unknown—and making prank calls in the face of pervasive Caller ID was an electrifyingly dicey proposition. Occasionally, we did get busted, as when we called our baby-faced history teacher and informed his answering machine, in the persona of a fictional girlfriend, that he was going to be a father. The teacher still lived with his parents, whom we’d greatly upset. Greatly upset, our principal intoned as we quaked in his office. Needless to say, when we called our math teacher a few years later, we used a pay phone.

Teachers made such irresistible targets because prank calling is, like all humor, fundamentally about power, and about challenging hierarchical relationships. Mrs. McGonigle may have had the authority (the audacity, to our minds) to schedule a big calculus exam, but we had her home phone number. When we called her the night before the test, shrieking vulgarities about Isaac Newton, she was vulnerable to us. Which is why, the next day in class, I regretted the call: Our typically brassy teacher seemed subdued, even sad, her shoulders slouching in her cardigan as she erased the blackboard. We had miscalculated, believing we were punching up when, really, we’d punched down. Before then, I’d never given much thought to the difference.

You might imagine Internet trolling to be the contemporary equivalent of prank calling. It is not. (I also spent many a bored teenage hour making trouble under my family’s communal AOL account, so I feel well qualified to speak to the difference). There is an intimacy to using the instrument of your own voice, one person on one phone line: It makes you accountable to your target. The raw anonymity of trolling makes it a dangerous weapon. On the phone, there is no delete button offering the chance to revise your words, and no time to spare—every second of silence, every stammer, could result in a hang-up: game over.

The limits of prank calling in the days of land lines could also force a kind of creativity on the practitioner. In one intricate maneuver I dubbed “Twelve Michelles,” I exploited my college’s three-way calling feature to connect a poor classmate named Dave with as many women bearing the same first name as I could. No sooner had Dave finished his “Who is this?”/“No, who is this?” dance with one Michelle than I connected him with the next available candidate on my list. Dave’s confused sigh, after the fourth or fifth Michelle identified herself to him, left me feeling like the composer and conductor of a magnificent symphony.

It was a triumph, if perhaps the kind that tells you you’ve stayed in the game a little too long. But for me it harkened back to those early days of poring over the phone book, to the wonder I felt at this strange landscape of the unknown and the possible, filled with potential for comedy and connection—this magical network just waiting to be activated if I would only pick up the phone and dial.

It’s a sense of wonder that I fear today’s teens may never experience. Their protean smartphones famously bring the whole world right to their pockets—which sounds expansive, but really means shrinking the world to pocket size. Why would anyone call someone they don’t know, or answer a call from an unknown number?

For a bit of mischief, they can always instant-message someone using a fake account—though this strikes me as a fairly impoverished idea of fun. It also reinforces how lucky I was to grow up with the prank call as an outlet for my adolescent boundary-pushing, and what a shame it is that my young son almost surely won’t. (If I catch him letting a website do his prank calling for him, we’ll have a serious talk about respect for tradition.) As Wordsworth (almost) said, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be a Jerky Boy was very heaven!”

Kate Levin is a writer in Los Angeles. Her website is www.kate-levin.com.
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