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A ringing endorsement

Saturday, December 12, 1998

By Dennis Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

We live in a time when every human contact is orchestrated. Bill Clinton tried some spontaneity and look where it got him.

Yet, every once and again, a brave soul steps into the gap of danger and endeavors to touch people at random. This is best done by telephone. Take it from Mark Thomas.

"I've always had a fascination with the ringing phone because, no matter where it is, if it's ringing, I think it's for me," Thomas said from a pay phone at the Atlanta airport. He called collect when I sent a message on his pager asking him to explain The Payphone Project, his site on the World Wide Web listing pay telephones from PPG Place (412-566-7820) to the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower (011-33-1-47-53-75-68).

The site contains numbers, their locations, and even some user guides. Next to the listing for a pay phone on Market Street in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, is the observation, "Good chance an Amish person will answer." Reaching an Amishman by telephone has got to rank high in anyone's catalog of achievements.

One contributor listed what purports to be the pay phone in the lobby of St. Thomas a Becket Church in Jefferson Borough.

Our correspondent reports: "I saw the number and called it. It was cool because a nun picked up and I said 'Satan rules' and she flipped."

The site has a featured pay phone of the month and a gallery of photographs of the exotic pay phones of old Tokyo, though, sad to say, not their numbers.

Thomas, a concert pianist who lives in New York City, collected his first pay phone number when he was in high school in Tampa, Fla.

"I've gone through a lot of dark times in my life," he said. His answer, as his number collection grew, was to call odd locations around the country and talk to whatever stranger would pick up.

The utter randomness of the contact intrigues Thomas. He is in awe of the pay phone's power to allow strangers to converse from a social distance.

"I bet if you called a pay phone and you asked the person who picked it up why they answered it they'd probably tell you because it rang. But if I tried to sit here and just talk to these same people, they wouldn't talk to me. They'd think I was nuts. Technology trumps them all."

I tested Thomas' thesis by calling the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower. Here is a full transcript:

"Allo?"

"Hello. I'm calling from the United States. Can you tell me how to make Bernaise sauce?"

Click.

Well, perhaps technology trumps them all, save the French.

Since he began posting phone numbers, a few cranks have tried to slip in those of ex-girlfriends, but Thomas has developed a second sense for spotting frauds.

Once, he was walking past a pay phone in the New York subway when it rang and a guy told him he'd seen the number on the Web and decided to give it a try.

"I didn't tell him it was me," Thomas said.

With so many numbers in his possession, Thomas is now contemplating some sort of communal call. He has logged all the pay phones at the Georgia World Conference Center in Atlanta and toys with the notion of lining up a squad of folks to make them all ring at once, preferably during a speech.

If you want to volunteer, try logging onto his site at www.sorabji.com He accepts e-mail and pager messages only. Don't bother phoning.

"I'm not listed," he said.



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