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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000

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Bear with me on this, because it's a little weird. The topic today is the Pay Phone Project, which is a Web site dedicated to . . . pay phones around the world. The site is the world's largest collection of pay phone numbers, pay phone photos and pay phone news (yes, there is pay phone news). And we're not talking about your local grubby convenience store pay phone. These grubby pay phones are located anywhere from Times Square to the Eiffel Tower to Hollywood Boulevard.

The Pay Phone News page includes a story about how a Spokane, Wash., man was beaten with a pay phone. There's also a page devoted to pay phone art. A woman has spent a serious amount of time and money taking pictures of pay phones around the United States. People also send her photos of pay phones, which she posts. For some reason, Tampa is featured prominently here. There is a story about how an angry man shot a pay phone, and pictures and numbers of the phones outside the Cigar City Motel and the Swan Motel, both in Tampa.

A nervous city asks . . . why?

Indeed. Why devote all this time and energy to pay phones? The site was created by Mark Thomas, an artist and writer who lives in New York City, but many of the contributions came from people who visited the site.

Comedians such as Jay Leno and David Letterman routinely call local pay phones and ask the people who answer to perform stunts. Cute, but it's one step away from calling a tobacco store and asking if they have Prince Albert in a can.

But think about what a pay phone is. It's a link to anyone anywhere on the globe. You place a call, someone answers (maybe), and you start a conversation. You can reveal who you are or remain anonymous. It's the ultimate fishing trip.

Sound familiar? It should.

That's exactly what happens in Internet chat rooms and on message boards.

If you'd like to nominate a site, drop me an e-mail at zucco@sptimes.com.

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