Jun 14

Red Boxes, Mafia Kids and Estes Park's first ever official Pride Celebration

An interview with Jenn Bass, producer of Estes Park's Historic First Pride Celebration and a new installment of 'Mostly True Tales'

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Jason VanTatenhove
Colorado's Counter Culture Magazine. Covering local arts, music, writing, local breaking news, deep-dive investigative articles, and podcasts based in Estes Park by Journalist, Author, and Artist Jason Van Tatenhove. https://coloradoswitchblade.com
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In today’s podcast, I interview Jenn Bass who is organizing the first-ever Pride Month Celebration here in Estes Park, about the planned festivities.

I then read my next audio essay in my series of ‘Mostly True Tales’ about an adventure I had in the Summer after graduating my senior year in high school.

It is entitled ‘Red Boxes and Mafia Kids.’

Here is the essay in written format:

Mostly True Tales: Red Boxes and Mafia Kids.

New Jersey is a strange place. You don’t realize that until you get away from it.

For the first twelve years of my life, I grew up in that land of the strange. I grew up in a small, little lakeside town called ‘Green Pond’ It was in northern Jersey, which I now know most people think of as one vast paved-over wasteland of a cityscape. But, nothing could be further from the truth. It was a forested wonderland tucked behind a two-mile-long lake that was far from a pond. There were maybe two or three hundred people in the town; that’s the picture my childhood memory paints. We lived in a small yellow house at the very end of Sunset Road. This story does not take place in Green Pond but starts there.

I remember waking up one morning to find a strange, hairy man sleeping topless on our front couch, and the kicker was he was wearing a dress! It must have been a Saturday morning as I was fucking pissed off that this stranger was going to disrupt my usual Saturday morning routine of gorging myself on Lucky Charms and watching my favorite Saturday commercials.

My parents had separated earlier in the year, and Mom had begun dating again. She had gone out the night before to some party, leaving my little brother and me with the red-headed babysitter down the street.

I remember running to my mother's bedroom in fear, panic, and anger to let her know some crazed, homeless man wearing a dress appeared in the night and decided to crash out on our front couch.

My mother roused from her cloudy-headed sleep to tell me it was ‘OK’ and that the man was her new friend Bill whom she had met at a Hawaiian luau party. And she was sure to add that he was wearing a costume, not a dress.

Bill would, in a year, become my step-father and, after my angst-ridden teenage years, become one of the most influential people in my life.

When Bill became a part of my family's lives, I also got a new set of cousins from Jersey City, Billy, and Jimmy. Jimmy was the older of the two but smaller in stature; Billy, the younger cousin, loved to eat and was one of the happiest kids I remember. I remember one time he came out and, during a backyard cookout, would have several stacks of hamburger paddies that he would stack up and smother with condiments. I am not exaggerating when I say the kid tore through condiments.

Jimmy was the smart one. He would start one of the first iPhone repair companies in New York City.

Coming from the idyllic beachfront life experience, meeting Bill’s family, whom all lived in the same tower of the Jersey City projects, was quite an adventure. There was a community pool. We spent many hot city summer days at the top of one of the towers in the early 80s. Where my little brother and I, along with Billy and Jimmy, would try and float paper airplanes over the Hudson into New York City. We would also drop pennies down onto the parking structure below us, cratering the hoods and roofs of the cars below to gleeful giggles—just a bunch of poor kids having the fun we could find in the smoggy Jersey City Summer.

Once we moved to Colorado, I saw Billy and Jimmy less and less. But during the summer of ’92, after I graduated from high school, I went back to Jersey to spend some time with my actual father and work fire demo with him. It had been several years since I had spent any time with him, and it didn’t take long to realize why I had chosen not to spend my summers with him anymore.

He had a new wife that wasn’t much older than I was then, and I had my own experiences with women her age by this point in my life.

She was a cunt, and I don’t use the term lightly (as the Brits do.) She was just a straight-up bitch, and it only took a couple of weeks to realize that I had to get out of there.

While brainstorming with my mother about getting the fuck out of Dodge (Along with the bitch breaking onto the call to refute just how awful she had been.) We came up with the idea that I could spend a couple of weeks couch surfing with my family in Jersey City.

This worked out great because my friend from high school, Matt, was coming to New York City, and we were supposed to spend some time in the city before we both went off to college and started the rest of our lives. Matt was a walking dichotomy, He played varsity football, but we found a connection through our love of music and psychedelics.

My mother bought me a train ticket to NYC, and my cousin Jimmy would meet me at Grand Central Station to ensure I got there alive. After making the short trip to the city, my cousin guided me back under the river to Jersey City.

The family still lived in the same tower but had moved apartments from the one I remembered. My cousin Jimmy asked me the first thing when we got back to the apartment was, “Hey, feel like making some money?” He said it with the same grin he had when we were kids, and he asked me if I wanted to have some fun by tossing pennies off the roof of the building cratering the hoods of the cars below.

“well, sure!” I answered. After being unable to work the whole summer doing the well-paying deconstruction of burnt-out condos, I was happy to find a way to make some extra money.

“So…how are we making money?” I asked.

With a twinkle in his eye, he answered my question with another question. “You ever hear of a red box?”

For those of you who are too young to remember the days of public pay phones or didn’t have friends who were hackers growing up, here is a little history lesson on ‘Red Boxes.’

But first, we need to talk about the advent of the phone ‘Phreaking.’

According to Wikipedia;

Phone phreaking got its start in the late 50s. Its golden age was the late 1960s and early 1970s. Phone phreaks spent much time dialing around the telephone network to understand how the phone system worked, engaging in activities such as listening to the pattern of tones to figure out how calls were routed, reading obscure telephone company technical journals, learning how to impersonate operators and other telephone company personnel, digging through telephone company trash bins to find "secret" documents, sneaking into telephone company buildings at night and wiring up their telephones, building electronic devices called blue boxesblack boxes, and red boxes to help them explore the network and make free phone calls, hanging out on early conference call circuits and "loop around" to communicate with one another and writing their newsletters to spread information.

red box is a phreaking device that generates tones to simulate inserting coins in pay phones, thus fooling the system into completing free calls. In the United States, a nickel is represented by one tone, a dime by two, and a quarter by a set of five. Any device capable of playing back recorded sounds can potentially be used as a red box. Commonly used devices include modified Radio Shack tone dialers, personal MP3 players, and audio-recording greeting cards.

So, my cousin had swiped his mom’s credit card and ordered a case of radio shack phone dialers. These were small, handheld, brown plastic rectangles with a keypad and a speaker on the front face.

For those of you old fogies out there, remember when you would put a quarter into a pay phone, and there would be a series of five tones. Well, that was the computer in the payphone, telling the computer at the phone company that you had put in 25 cents in intervals of 5 cents. So hackers, or rather phreakers, figured out that you could switch out a chip on a radio shack phone dialer, and it would emulate that tone exactly.

My cousin also ordered a case of those chips, and we spent the next week soldering in the chips along with a switch that allowed the devices to either function as a red box or switched over to just being a regular phone dialer. (This was as close as a contact list as we had before the days of smartphones. (You could store like 25 numbers in these things.) The plan was to sell the case of red boxes to the Mafia Kids that Jimmy knew growing up with them in Jersey City, making a tidy profit for both of us.

I still remember Jimmy driving around the different neighborhoods of Jersey City, showing me the various mafia cars parked outside of Italian restaurants, explaining to me the different meanings behind different colored flowers that were put in the hood ornaments of some of the cars.

So we spent the next week before Matt came out to meet us disassembling the radio shack phone dialers, installing the replacement chips, and adding a switch.

The plan was to go pick up Matt from the train station, fuck around for a bit in the city before meeting Jimmy’s contact in Greenwich Village for him to check out the red boxes and pay us the money, and then we would hit the night clubs of NYC with our profits like pirates after a successful haul. We were walking on clouds that week. What could possibly go wrong?”

Well, it turns out this was a series of monumental life lessons. Don’t mess with the Mafia Kids.

After securing a tazer (just in case), We picked up Matt as planned from the station, then headed to the village to find someone that looked radically different from the picture I had in my mind of what a ‘mafia kid’ was supposed to look like. This was a skinny kid in shorts, a tank top, long hair pushed behind a Yankees cap, and a large pair of sunglasses. Maybe he was incognito. He directed us to pull onto a side street next to a payphone so he could test out one of the red boxes. He jumped out of the car and ran over to the payphone. After making a call with the red box, he grabbed out of the cardboard box we had them all in and trotted back.

“So?” Jimmy asked

“They work great!” The kid said with a smirk. Hey, pull off into this alley.” He pointed across the street. I’ll give you the cash when we are out of sight. Jimmy naively did just what the kid said to do as soon as we pulled the car to a stop. My worst anxieties came to life. Four fully grown men in plain clothes walked up to the car's four doors. Just before they got to the front passenger door, the mafia kid jumped out with the cardboard box filled with our hopes and dreams and sprinted away. The men pulled up their shirts from their waistbands, revealing handguns and badges.

“What the fuck are you kids up to?” the man outside Jimmy’s open window yelled into the car.

I am sure we all three collectively peed our pants, just a little.

“Nothing. I was showing my friend our new phone dialers. We were selling them to raise funds for our band trip later this summer.” Jimmy had kept his cool much better than I had.

“Yeah, sure, kid, you sure those weren’t red boxes?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Shut up.” The man said, and we all sat in silence, sweating in the summer city heat.

“We need you to meet us at the police station, don’t fuck around; just drive right there and ask Detective Calzone. We’ll meet you there. Got it?”

“Yeah, sure, we got it.”

As quickly as the men had appeared, they melted back into the pulse of the bustling city weekend, and we sat in stunned silence, letting the adrenaline course through our veins.

I finally broke the silence. “Hey Jimmy, I’m not sure those were cops.”

“Nope, they were mafia guys, and we just got ripped off.”

“I think I need to call my parents,” Matt added.

The next few days were spent in defeat. Matt and I went and got some fake ID’s over in Times Square and then went back to Colorado.

Later that month, I would get a call from Jimmy saying he had gotten some payback on the mafia kids when he had set fire to one of their private gas pumps.

My mom and dad got some harrowing news at the end of summer. Billy, who had nothing to do with our dealings with the mafia kids, had been visiting his father in the Greek Isles and had been killed when the scooter he was riding was forced off the road and into a cable that had been strung across the exit. He was decapitated and killed instantly.

While I don’t know if these events were connected, I can't help to wonder if we should have never fucked with the mafia kids and red boxes.


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