Feature Writer Alena Roberts – The Life and Times of Joe Engressia, aka JoyBubbles

I was listening to the show RadioLab last weekend and heard a fascinating story. The show was called “Escape,” and it was all about how people escape from things. One of the stories was about a man who has broken out of jail 14 times. That was pretty amazing, but it was really the last story that inspired this article. In the 1950’s a young blind man named Joe Engressia learned how to break into the phone system using his perfect pitch.

Joe Engressia had a traumatic childhood. He went to a Catholic school for the blind, where he was abused by the staff, and his family life wasn’t any better. To get away from reality, he would often sit and listen to the dial tone of the phone. At the age of 5 he discovered that you could dial phone numbers by making a pulsing sound, and by age 7, he had figured out how to whistle at 2600 hertz and activate phone switches. The second discovery led to him being able to make long distance phone calls for free by tricking the phone system. This trick is known as “freaking.” After he got caught in college making these free long distance calls, other young phone freaks (as they were called) started calling him, and they eventually started conference calling each other.

After graduating from college, Joe started looking for work. He wanted a job with the phone company, but no one would hire him. So he devised an elaborate plan to get himself arrested for breaking into their systems. The plan worked and he was offered 4 jobs by competing phone companies. He accepted one, but didn’t end up liking it as much as he’d hoped, so he moved to Denver where he became a network trouble-shooter for Mountain Bell. This job was more of what he hoped for because it utilized his intimate understanding of how the phone system functioned.

Sadly, this job didn’t make him happy because he really had never faced the trauma of his childhood. In the 1980’s he decided to simply give up being an adult. He changed his name to JoyBubbles, and declared that he would be 5 until he died. He started spending time with children, and created a show called “Stories and Stuff.” His life came to an early end in 2007 when he died from complications of congestive heart failure.

To hear the complete story that RadioLab produced about JoyBubbles click on this link: http://www.radiolab.org/popup_player/#

If you knew Joe Engressia, please share your experiences in the Reader’s Forum.

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