Tag: stories

The Beige Times, issue 2, May 1949: Desert Sand

Beige November 27, 2018

a drawing I made of the imperfections of the paper on which I was drawing, overlaid with typed text

a drawing I made of the imperfections of the paper on which I was drawing, overlaid with typed text

a drawing I made of the imperfections of the paper on which I was drawing, overlaid with typed text

[Image description: an abstract beige, brown, pink and white drawing made with pencil on 3 tabbed index cards. The drawing has been collaged over with lines of typed text. The text reads as follows:

As noted in Issue 1 of The Beige Times, the artist Lázsló Moholy-Nagy was suspected to have lied about the method of creation of his Telephone Pictures. He claimed to have ordered the paintings over the phone, but is alleged to have ordered them in person. During the 1960s and ’70s, a globally distributed network of blind teenagers were also lying about their telephone use.

In the mid-1950s Joe Engressia (1949-2007), a blind eight-year-old with perfect pitch, discovered that by whistling into the telephone receiver he could trick the AT&T phone system into thinking it was listening to itself. By reproducing the frequencies AT&T used for its long distance switching system, Engressia found he could connect to any phone number without dialling (or paying for) it.

In the mid-1960s Mark Bernay (not his real name) travelled up and down the U.S. West Coast leaving stickers in telephone booths. The stickers read, “Want to hear an interesting tape recording? Call these numbers.” The numbers listed were loop-arounds – pairs of phone numbers that the telephone company used for remote circuit testing and troubleshooting. A technician would call one of the numbers in the pair from any telephone line, then call the second number in the pair from another telephone line. The two lines would be automatically connected via the loop-around pair, and the technician could run diagnostic tests on the connection. Mark Bernay and other telephone enthusiasts (known as phone phreaks) had discovered that two people could talk over loop-around connections anonymously and toll-free.

Eventually Bernay’s road trip paid off, and teenagers everywhere were chatting anonymously on loop-arounds and setting up massive, free, international conference calls. Phone phreaking was particularly popular amongst blind kids. Isolated in a sighted world, they could dial into a loop-around at any time of the day or night and instantly connect to other blind kids, at home in an aural medium.

During this time, AT&T held a monopoly over the North American telephone services market via a network of companies called the Bell System. Households had to lease their telephone from Bell, and were prohibited from using other companies’ equipment. During the first half of the 20th century, nearly all Bell telephones were black, as it was too costly to produce them in different colours. However, after World War II, the telephone became a decorative, as well as functional, household item, and AT&T began mass producing them in a variety of colours. One colour, marketed by AT&T as beige, is actually a variant of beige more precisely called Desert Sand.

In 1998, Desert Sand was introduced into the Crayola colour range. According to the Crayola website, Desert Sand is a member of  the Crayola brown family. I attempted to construct a chronology of all current Crayola brown crayons, but my efforts were frustrated by absent and conflicting data. The study of Crayola colour history has been complicated by inconsistent naming and record keeping conventions on the part of the Crayola company. A small number of devoted fans have laboriously compiled Crayola colour timelines, collecting antique crayons and comparing their colour variations in an attempt to discover which colours are genuinely different and which are just differently named. Such visual distinctions would no doubt have seemed irrelevant to Joe Engressia, who changed his name to Joybubbles in 1991. After recovering memories of childhood abuse, he decided to revert permanently to childhood, and founded a spiritual and peer support organisation for other eternal children called We Won’t Grow Up. The message on his telephone answering machine included the slogan, “Out of the rat race, into the sand box.”]