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Joe Engressia, Expert 'Phone Phreak,' Dies
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Joe Engressia, Expert 'Phone Phreak,' Dies

Remembrances

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We read an obituary in the New York Times today of one of the most unusual characters we'd ever heard of. The crowning act of his unusualness was probably his changing his name in the 1990s legally to Joybubbles, one word.

As Joybubbles, he hosted a weekly telephone storyline.

JOYBUBBLES (Host, "Stories and Stuff"): Gosh, it's May already. Well, I'm glad you've called "Stories and Stuff." And this is your storyteller Joybubbles here in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

SIEGEL: In this story, Joybubbles, in cadence(ph) reminiscent of his idol Fred Rogers, recalled how as a young child he would become terrified when his parents fought.

JOYBUBBLES: Sometimes, I'd hug my phone up close and listen to the dial tone, the soft hum of the dial tone that was always there. What a wonderful thing a telephone is.

SIEGEL: Ah, the telephone. Joybubbles, who was born Josef Carl Engressia Jr. in 1949, had an unusual relationship with the telephone. He was born blind and he used his unusual auditory gifts to pioneer the practice known in its day as phone phreaking. Phreaking spelled with a P-H as in phone. That phrase came to light in 1971 in an Esquire magazine article by Ron Rosenbaum, who is now a columnist for Slate, and right to us, we welcome to the program. Hi, Ron.

Mr. RON ROSENBAUM (Columnist, Slate Magazine): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Do you remember as he was then Joe Engressia?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yes. I visited him in Memphis and visited his apartment, which was packed to gills with disemboweled phones. He had an amazing facility to repair phones and he also had perfect pitch. He first learned how to fool a phone company by actually whistling the electronic tones that the phone company use, particularly AT&T, to signal and connect its entire worldwide network.

SIEGEL: So, in effect, in the era when, say, touch-tones were the commands that could make the phones do things, he possessed a perfect pitch could make the telephone system do his personal bidding?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yes. And he really created, with the help of other blind electronic phone geniuses who were the nucleus of the hackerdom phone freaks, he turned the phone company into a kind of personal computer chat room, virtually. He was a peculiarly important American figure, sort of like the first geek - the founder of sort of techno-geek outlawry.

SIEGEL: I read in his obituary in the Times today that he was said to have had an extremely high IQ, up in the 170s, and felt that his youth had been taken from him in exchange for expectations that he perform at this high level of intelligence. I gather he did go to college, but he didn't - he never actually found a true career in his adult life (unintelligible).

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well it was - he was a very original kind of guy, and his genius did find expression in creating this network that, you know, I think spoke of people's love-hate feelings about technology.

SIEGEL: Then there's this odd twist in his life. This is well after you had interviewed him when he became Joybubbles, and I gather, proclaimed himself an eternal 5-year-old.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: You know, I had lost touch with him by the time this happened. So, I can't really speak to why. But there was, you know, an appealing quality to him. His favorite thing was going to dinner at a Holiday Inn. Because he was blind, and Holiday Inn's all over the nation were laid out in the same way at the time, so you could always find his way around. And he moved to Memphis because it had a sort of unique bar-five switching system or something like that, that he want.

SIEGEL: Did he move there for the telephone service?

Mr. ROSENBAUM: For its idiosyncrasies, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Ron Rosenbaum, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: Thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: That's Ron Rosenbaum, author of the most recently of the book "The Shakespeare Wars," talking with us about Josef Engressia as he was - when Rosenbaum interviewed him in 1971 for Esquire. He later changed his name to Joybubbles. He died August 8th in Minneapolis.

This was the signoff from Joybubbles' last edition of "Stories and Stuff."

JOYBUBBLES: Well, next time there'll be another story and take some time to play. Stay strong and take care of each other. Bye for now.

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