Joybubbles, the "Granddaddy of Phone Phreaking" who was formerly known as Joe Engressia, died a year ago today.
His friend Steven (the executor of his estate) and I had the honor of cleaning out his tiny little apartment in Minneapolis a few weeks later. Below is an essay I wrote shortly afterwards as I struggled to process things.
The smell is the first thing you notice. It's certainly the first thing Joybubbles would have noticed. To my nose, the air in the apartment building is a miasma, an amalgam of the smells of stale food, cigarette smoke, and grease. But I'm not Joybubbles -- and one of his favorite expressions was, "This stinks so good!" Joybubbles loved swimming in heavily chlorinated swimming pools for this very reason. He loved smells, in all their varieties.
The fact that there are no lightbulbs in his apartment is the second thing you notice. But it's certainly not something Joybubbles would have noticed -- blind since birth, he didn't spend a lot of time noticing light bulbs. Joybubbles once told of exploring a hotel and finding his way to its heavily chlorinated swimming pool after hours, in the dark. The angry hotel manager finally caught him and demanded, "How did you find your way to the pool? There's no way you could have gotten here! The lights were off!" Joybubbles just smiled.
The clutter and chaos and insanity in the tiny apartment is the third thing you notice. What's this? Oh, an old military AUTOVON telephone, complete with the magic extra Touch-Tone button labeled "FO ("Flash Override") that Generals were supposed to use to alert the President in the event of war. It's next to half a dozen other telephones and boxes of wires, connectors, and components. And this? Oh, that's a complete Braille bible ... next to the complete Braille Mary Baker Eddy Christian Science text ... next to a complete Braille Webster's dictionary. Which are all next to a 1970 Pacific Telephone/AT&T training manual for the #1 electronic switching system (ESS) ... a gold mine if you were a phone hacker like Joybubbles was back in the day.
Then there are the Braille books on child development. And the Braille copy of Goodnight Moon.
Cassette tapes. Hundreds and hundreds of cassette audio tapes. Strewn, tossed, piled about his desk and shelves, near one of his several ancient cassette tape players, in no discernible order. But what's in those dozens of brown paper shopping bags, wrinkled and torn? More cassettes. Hundreds, no, thousands, of books and magazines on tape. Everything from Catholic Daily Devotionals to QST, the magazine of amateur radio. If his appetite for books and magazines on tape was voracious, there had to be somewhere to pile the bones and husks -- so the discards, the listened-to cassettes, wound up in bag after bag after brown paper bag, littered randomly throughout the room.
The cassette tapes are dwarfed in turn by the Braille magazines. Popular Communications was a favorite.
But even these yield to the toys and stuffed animals. A giant plush turtle has taken over the bed, alternately commanding (when on all fours) or baleful (on its back, furry flippers in the air, requiring rescue). Smaller animals fill the room, some on shelves, more on the floor.
The stuffed animals compete for primacy in the room with the "hard toys," as Steven and I took to calling them. Presumably these started inhabiting the apartment in 1988, about the same time that Joybubbles decided that he was an eternal child, five years old forever. (Later, in his dresser, we found a credit card in the name of "Puer Aeternus," Latin for "eternal boy.") A set of beach toys here (plastic bucket, shovel, and sand-casting mold), a rubber dart gun there, a huge bag of wooden building blocks, a small plastic table and chair.
In short, exactly the toys you and I wanted when we were five years old.
All in a 330-square-foot studio apartment where an eternally five-year-old blind genius, supported by a poverty-line disability pension, lived and died.