My first year at college was different than most, I think. Living in a dorm with a cafeteria attached meant that I was not going to die on a budget of $20 each week, though it severely limited my options, especially since part of that $20 had to cover Sunday dinner, the only break in service taken by the cafeteria. I’m sure this was good in terms of drinking and what-not, though I happily had never been a drinker, and college was unlikely to make me one. I think I drank four times my freshman year, and one time I got so hammered that I threw up, a first-time for me with alcohol, which put me off drinking entirely for many years.
Of the 20,000 or so college students at my university, only seven incoming freshmen went to my high school, and none of them had been close friends. I was always a friendly person, though I also always seemed to have a hard time making good friends. The kids on the guys’ side of my floor in the dorm — in our enormous, fourteen-story co-ed dorm — were good enough guys, though a lot of them were already pretty tight with each other from high school, and I’m not sure they knew what to do with a dancer programmer.
This would not be an uncommon reaction.
But before I could begin dorm life, I had to actually enter the dorms. This presented some unexpected challenges, largely because I hadn’t yet let a perfectly rational resistance to doing something stupid get in the way of trying to prove to myself that I was cool.
For example, it had been more than a year since I’d personally engaged in the dark art of not paying for long-distance phone calls. Today I live in world where a phone call to a record store in my town — to one of the few record stores still in business, I know — costs the same as a call to a record store in another state or on another coast. But back then, and until pretty recently, most calls outside your phone’s area code were charged per-minute for the service, and a dollar per minute was not always outrageous. International calls were always outrageous.
Even worse, the phone system was changing faster than the hackers were able to find new loopholes. The old forms of Cap’n Crunch-style whistling and other hacks relying on tone-generation were made obsolete once modern digital trunks made their way into the updated phone system. Even on the old analog systems, the rumor was spreading that they were monitoring for exactly the sort of play we used to enjoy. It was the end of an era. You were no longer gracefully exploiting the architecture of the system to explore and have fun. If you wanted to make long-distance calls without paying for them, you had to bill them to someone else’s account. When you billed calls to someone else’s account, you were making someone pay for something that they never offered to cover for you. You were stealing a service, and someone else was paying for it.
Only a special deal from the phone company would let you call another area code without it being charged as long distance. For example, Dallas was one area code, and Fort Worth was another area code, and if you were sandwiched in a suburb between the two then it was more the luck of the draw which area code you called your home, so for something like an extra $7 a month you could make your phone a “metro line,” able to call 817 and 214 without paying for individual calls.
One day, late in my senior year of high school, my mom came to me with a phone bill and some questions. My throat tightened, but looking at the bill it seemed to have nothing to do with me. They were all calls from one 817 number, in Fort Worth, to a 214 number, in Dallas, that someone else had charged to our account. I called the Ft. Worth number, which sounded familiar, only to find that it was the home number for a buddy of mine from junior high, who I sadly hadn’t kept in touch with.
“I’m sorry,” he kept saying, “I’m so sorry.” He’d called the operator and asked that his long-distance call be billed to my family’s home number, which he remembered being a metro line. He thought it would give him free calls to Dallas, but instead of leveraging the “metro”-edness of the line the phone company instead dutifully billed the call to us.
“Who were you calling?” I asked.
“A girl, you know. A girl. I’m really sorry, man — I did not know that was going to happen.”
“Don’t worry about it, really,” I said. “Believe me, I understand. If I tell my parents it was a mistake and that it won’t happen again, they won’t care. If they push hard, I’ll tell them what happened. They love you, they’ll understand.”
“Oh, please don’t tell them! Aw, man. I really liked your mom, I’d hate for her to be disappointed in me. I guess you have to tell her, really. Look, man, let me pay for it: you have to let me pay for it.”
He was really sorry, and I don’t remember it being a lot of money so we really didn’t care, but his embarrassment was great enough that we never spoke again. I do remember getting a letter in the mail from him: check, no note.
For my own part, I’d thrown away any remaining long distance codes I still had once I’d turned seventeen, nearly a year earlier. Seventeen seemed close enough to eighteen that I didn’t think I could realistically say I was just a kid playing around, anymore. Having someone else’s long distance billed to my account was a reminder that I was supposed to act mature, even if I knew I wasn’t.
At the same time, seventeen is still old enough to harbor resentments against big, wasteful businesses, and at the time the phone company felt like about the biggest and most wasteful business I could imagine. I had a limited imagination, I know. That summer, I went down to Austin for Freshman orientation, a three-day preview of dorm life. I had spent the previous month working a terrible job at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park, and I was extremely relieved to have quit it, even though it meant I had to go out of my way to see the cute girl who’d been flirting with me instead of seeing her every day at work. Since I wasn’t seeing her at work anymore, and I knew exactly what kind of sharks my former co-workers were, I knew I’d have to keep in pretty good touch before some other guy made a better impression.
The dorm did not have working telephones in their rooms over the summer, and you couldn’t make long-distance calls anyway, not without a private service. The thought of cops busting into my dorm room because I’d been stealing long distance did not sit well with me. And the dorm-room phones would take incoming calls, though not like a normal, stand-alone phone line — in fact, the way that they answered would prevent my computer from answering the phone, even if I could’ve convinced my roommate to let me take over our line to run my bulletin-board system out of our room. So that dream was definitely dead.
But the dorm had pay phones. Sadly, I had almost no money. So I did something with one of the pay phones that let me make a long-distance call from Austin back to that girl, who was happy that I’d called and excited to hear I was exploiting a loophole in the system to call her.
I don’t remember what I did, but I wasn’t billing the call to a stranger through a long-distance service. It must have been a straight hack of the phone system, based on what happened next.
We talked for maybe half an hour, and set a date for when we would see each other after I returned. Not half-a-minute after hanging up, as I was walking off to check out the campus, the pay phone began to ring behind me. I made a quick and quiet dance step sideways, out of the main hall and into a side-nook. The phone rang a few more times before a passer-by picked it up.
“Uh, hello? Mmm, no, not me. No, I don’t see anyone else here. Why would I do that? Hey, I was just walking by and the phone was ringing.” Then a click of a handset being slammed int. The guy who’d picked up the phone snorted and strolled back toward the elevators.
Oh, hell. I spent the rest of orientation keeping to myself. A few days later, when I got home and had my date with that girl, I got the other half of the story.