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Random brushes with humanity

Former Tampa resident Mark Thomas used to reach out and touch strangers through pay phones. Now he does it through his music and photography.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF
Published July 20, 2004


He would dial the number but not speak. Instead, when a street person or prostitute picked up the ringing pay phone on Kennedy Boulevard, he played a recording of his classical piano. He imagined the puzzled stranger on the other end of the line, and his music tinnily transcending the seedy street.

Mark Thomas, then a Tampa teenager, found excitement in that random connection.

Now 36 and living in Queens, N.Y., Thomas is still driven to talk to strangers through music and photography and the Internet. He believes in serendipity.

"To me, randomness is everything."

Thomas' fascination for ringing up pay phones led to a first-of-its-kind Web site, www.payphone-project.com which charts almost a half-million pay phone locations and numbers worldwide collected by the public.

More recently, Thomas' camera makes introductions. His photographs of ancient cemeteries squeezed by newly constructed freeways and office towers hint at the same collision of strangers.

And he makes music. The concert pianist next wants to create a live Web feed of himself during practices, inviting strangers to eavesdrop on the sweat preceding a performance.

"Have you ever studied chaos theory?" he asks, speaking on his cell phone after several e-mails exchanged to arrange an interview. He is sitting in a park, he says, for good reception.

"I was reading about artificial intelligence. Some of these first computers were being used to automatically create poetry and stories, everything a human could do. (Programmers') approach was to develop rules the computer had to stick to."

The effort produced little of artistic value, he continues.

"Then they just threw in some words" like a grab bag, and the computer did better.

The line goes dead. Twice. He calls back.

On a pay phone.

When Thomas made those first calls to Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, the experiment was about the unexpected, he says. He took piano lessons at the University of Tampa and overheard there was a prostitute problem. "I probably didn't know what prostitutes were," he says.

He knew their world was nothing like his own.

"I had this notion of turning random people on to classical music - not to make them listen in the concert hall, but hear it on the street. It was me playing Chopin and Schumann.

"I thought it was about provoking people."

Thomas was reared overseas, and his family frequently uprooted for his father's job as a military attache to embassies. They came to Tampa in 1975. He attended Jesuit High School, where he joined the band to get out of gym class. No piano there. He played the xylophone. He graduated from Oberlin College Conservatory and freelances as a Web site and game designer.

He has always been about communication, says his mother, Carole Thomas of Tampa. "He was able to sing in his crib. Then I didn't know all babies didn't sing."

She was unaware of his pay phone fascination: "He was making calls at school."

After Thomas moved to New York in 1980, he began jotting down pay phone locations and numbers in a spiral notebook. He drew further inspiration when talk show host David Letterman made random calls to passers-by - a ringing pay phone answered could vault a bystander on a sidewalk onto a national television stage.

A pay phone can summon life-saving aid.

But calls placed to pay phones at Grand Central Terminal were blocked as law enforcement sought to shut down drug deals.

Pay phones, it seems, are noble and nefarious.

"The subways used to be a scary place," Thomas says. "I'd see people pick up the pay phone and just dial a couple of numbers: Maybe if I look busy on the phone, no one will bother me. The pope could walk in right now, and he'd have to wait till I'm off the phone."

He started the Web site in 1995. Travelers added numbers from Brazil to Australia to the Save-A-Lot Food Store on Hillsborough Avenue. In 1999, anonymous submissions from a self-described investigator and a phone company employee boosted the searchable contents to almost a half-million numbers.

A mother in Texas used the database to locate her runaway 15-year-old. A businessman in Phoenix tracked his own phone stalker.

But Thomas lost interest when people began seeking specific connections. He says he is no longer playing the pay phone game.

Today, virtually all pay phones block incoming calls. Post-9/11, use of a pay phone at an airport fits law enforcement's profile of a terrorist. The womblike phone booth with accordion door is almost gone, replaced by abbreviated side partitions, then no surround whatsoever.

Now the phones are disappearing. Totals in the United States fell from almost 3-million in the mid 1990s to fewer than 1.8-million.

"We wanted to focus on wireless," says Al Schweitzer, spokesman for BellSouth Corp., of its 2001 decision to sell or trash its 143,000 pay phones in the Southeast. At Verizon, pay phones remain a $500-million business, but their numbers are down.

"Nothing's permanent," says Thomas.

He has so many other interests to pursue.

He takes photographs, many of the detritus of his personal life, such as shopping receipts, or common objects. "Pictures of Pipes," one series is called.

He performs with members of the Astoria Music Society, a group of classical musicians. As a soloist, Thomas gravitates toward the obscure. He played a program of works from 26 composers, A to Z X was Juan Ximenez, an alternative spelling of Jimenez. His current Web site, www.sorabji.com is named for the late Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, a prolific composer whose hourslong works are fearsomely difficult to play and were withdrawn from public performance by Sorabji himself in the mid 1930s.

"He didn't think anyone was good enough" to play them, says Thomas.

Visitors to the site can sample Thomas' "Sunday improvisations." Titles include "For the kids I might have had 5 or 6 years ago," and "Waiting for the pornographic video to rewind."

Thomas, still on the pay phone, stops to listen to a cabdriver's Spanish harangue.

"Can you hear that?" he asks.

There is only the whoosh of traffic.

When most people try to explain the creative process, "They resort to making themselves look a lot more special than they are. My approach," he says, "is to deflate that."

Like human interaction reduced to a random call on a pay phone to a stranger.

[Last modified July 19, 2004, 18:29:05]


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