Below are goodies that could not be included in the book due to space constraints. Enjoy.
"We may have some trouble with the security guard."
It is a beautiful April day in southern California. Al Diamond has picked me up just a few minutes ago from the Burbank airport passenger terminal. Diamond, 72 years old, bald, with big plastic framed glasses, slowly pilots his gold minivan through the rental car parking lot. A clipboard covered with scrawling handwriting is leaned up against the steering wheel, where he jots down numbers and letters as he peers at the parked rental cars.
"Um, Al?" I ask. "Why are we here, and what are you doing?"
Diamond continues to write, focused on his task. After a moment he replies, "There's some paper down there somewhere on the floor of the seat in front of you."
I reach down and find a handful of photocopied flyers that have apparently spent most of their life underneath the feet of his passengers. The flyers explain that it's a free country, that Diamond is simply writing down license plate numbers of cars, that he's not doing anything illegal, that he isn't a terrorist, and that Everything Is Going To Be OK.
"I give that to the security guards if they hassle me." Another pause as he writes. "They've gotten much worse since 9/11," he adds.
"Why are you writing down license plate numbers?"
"It's how I tell how many tourists are visiting from out of town."
Diamond looks up. "Ok, here comes the security guard," he says. "Time to go." He slowly accelerates and exits the rental car lot, the security guard staring at us in the rear-view mirror. Soon we are on Vineland Avenue, heading towards Hollywood.
"Why do you care about how many tourists are visiting from out of town?" I ask.
"It helps me sell maps," he replies.
This reply is not as random as it might sound. If you've ever driven through downtown Hollywood, you've undoubtedly seen people on street corners, often with sandwich board signs, waving down cars and hawking maps to stars homes. For a few dollars you can buy a map that purports to tell you where the glitterati of tinseltown live, so you can go gawk at their houses and be a pest and maybe catch a glimpse of one or two of them.
Map sellers have been a fixture on Hollywood street corners since the 1940s and Al Diamond has been a fixture among them since the beginning. First he was a map worker, one of the kids on the street corners. Later, he started his own company selling maps. In all the years he's been running his Maps To Stars Homes business, he figures he's employed some 30,000 people in total, mostly kids. That's everyone, including kids who have worked for him for a day and then quit. "Long term workers, good workers? Probably a thousand," he says.
These days, the maps business is a competitive one, and Diamond can only afford to have his workers out in the field when there are lots of tourists in town. If the rental car lot at Burbank is empty, it means brisk business. But if it's full, that doesn't necessarily mean a bad day. By looking at the license plate numbers, Diamond can tell if cars have been brought in from out of town to handle a surge in rentals — hence our little recon trip.
I'm really not there to learn about the map business. I'm there to talk to Diamond about phones: Al Diamond, aka "Al Bernay," was one of the more famous phone phreaks in Los Angeles in the 1970s. But it turns out that Al Diamond is kind of a package deal: if you want to learn about his phone phreaking, you're also going to end up learning about maps to stars homes.
As Diamond and I circle through Hollywood — "making the rounds," he calls it, picking up and dropping off map workers and monitoring their progress — he tells me how he became a phone phreak.
Born in 1936, Diamond was fascinated by technology for as long as he can remember, "Whenever I got a new toy, even at 2 or 3 years old, I was never interested in playing with it. Instead I took it apart to see how it worked. I didn't care about anything other than the mechanics." He recalls learning what a worm gear was from taking apart one of his first toys, a merry-go-round that would spin around and shoot sparks out the sides when you pushed down on a plunger. "The other kids thought I was destroying my toys. I didn't care. I never cared about what anyone else thought of me. I just did my thing."
(Me, in the passenger seat, mentally running down my phone phreak checklist: geek at a young age, check. Didn't care about what other people thought of him, check.)
Even today, he allows, "A lot of people think I'm just totally nuts." Reflecting back to our license plate reconnaissance mission at the airport, I can imagine how maybe, just maybe, this might possibly be the case.
"Ask me if I care," he says with a shrug.
Diamond graduated from taking apart toys to taking apart locks. "At five or six years old, I knew exactly how a key worked in a lock," he says — and how to pick them. He says he realized at that time what a sham most security was. But, he claims, "It never occurred to me to misuse the information ... I was just interested in the mechanics. Any machine at all I was interested in. A key operates a machine. The machine is the pins in the lock, and the rotation, and the lining up of the grooves. It was the machine I was interested in." (Me, mentally, with my phone phreak checklist: "I was just interested in the network!" Check.)
Before he became a teenager, he spent most of his time riding his bicycle, exploring roads and new construction and oil fields in Los Angeles's Baldwin Hills area. "You have to understand, when I was a kid, this was a free country," he says. "A kid could go anywhere he wanted, practically, and nobody worried about it. I was never asked what I was doing riding my bike among the oil wells. Nobody was tired of my questions when I asked the oil workers what the machines were." He adds, "By the time I was 10 I knew about how hydraulics worked and vacuums and all that. I'm not bragging about how smart I was. I simply born an absolute busybody nosy curious kid. I wanted to know about every possible thing." (Check.)
One of those things was, naturally, the telephone. "At five or six years old I had already taken my telephone apart," he remembers. But he didn't really understand how it all worked. "I had the concept that some invisible force was going into these wires. I wondered what it was."
"I dialed numbers, to see what I would get. I found lots of test lines. Beverly Hills had an exchange called Crestview. I had discovered, along with many kids before me, that if you got a busy signal, you could talk to anyone else who got a busy signal at the same time. So we'd get a million kids yelling at each other through a busy signal, making friends and meeting." This, he says, was back around 1947 or 1948.
"The very first exchange to get automatic distance dialing, but only to downtown LA, was my exchange. If you dialed 62 (MAdison), instead of the immediate final step-switch click, you'd get silence with a very soft 500 Hz tone in the background, then some cross-talk type of clicking, then a click, then something pulsing out ... and then you'd get connected to your Madison number." It was magic! How did it work? He had to find out.
"So I called the phone company and asked them ... I dialed zero, I dialed the business office. Nobody knew the answer. I thought, 'Why are they working for the telephone company if they can't answer my questions?'" Fortunately, his bike saved him. One day, while riding his bicycle, he looked in the window of a building and spotted some interesting looking stuff inside. He knocked on the front door and asked the man who answered what it was. He had discovered his first telephone company central office. "The phone companies didn't think you were going to blow them up back then," he says, and he got a tour of the CO. At last, somebody who could explain how this stuff worked! "They taught me how you get dial tone... they went through the whole thing, they traced everything for me. They even let me solder a wire on the main frame."
"I began writing down which telephone prefixes were from which cities. And I found out that there were no duplicate phone prefixes even halfway to San Francisco. San Diego had different prefixes than LA did ..." But some prefixes were missing. And they didn't seem to be assigned in simple numerical order. Why was that? Diamond felt there must be some sort of underlying structure that he wasn't seeing, and that bugged him.
This was just about the time Diamond got his first job selling maps. Spending so much time observing cars in traffic, and primed by his telephonic explorations, he couldn't help noticing things. "I began looking at license plate numbers and saying, 'How come there are certain letters I rarely see?' I see a few As, but I don't see B through M very much, but I see N through Z all the time. I began writing down some of the numbers and found that combinations that should exist did not, or very rarely did. I began wondering, how come I don't get anything with a J on it? How come I don't get any license plates beginning with 4X? Maybe one or two of them, where I had hundreds of the others. Why don't I have 4X?"
Then one day Diamond's parents took him on a trip to Lancaster, about 70 miles north of Hollywood. "I had to wait in the car for an hour for them to do something. I got bored, so I started writing numbers down. All of a sudden, almost every plate began with 4X. 'Oh, that's the deal!' So I began collecting license plate numbers. It's the same thing as writing down telephone exchanges."
He quickly found a way to bend this new knowledge to his benefit: "Selling maps, I'd whistle at cars as they drove past to get their attention, and then I'd call out the city they were from. If I saw a 4X, I'd say, 'Hey Lancaster!' Boy, would they come back!" His map sales exploded.
Diamond pulls his minivan off to the side of the road to confer with some of his map workers. He rolls down the passenger window and shouts at a Hispanic boy who works for him:
"Zero," the boy responds.
"How many stops?"
He turns to the boy's sister. "Viffle?"
"One-two-blank," she says.
Diamond notes this down.
The girl asks, "Can I have a wet napkin plea?"
"Not plea," Diamond corrects. "Please," he says, emphasizing the s. "Did you know that some sales are lost by customers not understanding what you're saying, but they're too polite to tell you?" he asks the girl.
From her blank look, it is unclear if the girl knows this, or indeed, if she has any idea what he's talking about. Diamond was a school teacher for many years and today, when not running his maps business, he still works as a substitute teacher. Again and again throughout our day together I watch him correct, coach, and explain things to his map workers, on topics ranging from English to math. I'm not sure if he can't help it or isn't even aware he's doing it; maybe both.
Managerial duties concluded, Diamond pulls his van out into traffic again. We are headed to the parking lot of a Ralph's supermarket, where he will eat lunch. For health reasons, he explains, he eats nothing but fruit; cooked food is reserved for special occasions, such as dinner with his girlfriend, or a meal with Mark Bernay, his long-time friend and fellow phone phreak.
"So what was viffle?" I ask.
"It's spelled w-i-e-v-i-e-l, and I've Americanized the accent. It's really 'wie viel' - it's German: 'how many.' Short for 'Wie viel hast du verkauft?' or 'How many have you sold?' It started a block behind us ... there was a six year old boy that was bored out of his mind just sitting there watching the map workers. He did not know English. He just kept yelling, 'Wie viel? Wie viel?' We made fun of him. But we Americanized it to viffle, back in 1951. We kept that. I don't care how old a person is, if they have sold maps for me, they still know the word viffle. I've got people who will drive by in a car and yell viffle at me."
When somebody yells "viffle" at you, by the way, the proper response is to shout back three numbers: the count of each of the three different types of maps you've sold since the last time someone shouted viffle at you.
"I began playing with my phone and making long distance calls," he says, "realizing I wouldn't be charged if nobody answered. So I would call numbers, let them ring once, and then hang up. If I was lucky, I would get a disconnected number and I could play with it. I discovered that there was an echo on the line. If I blew into the phone, I would hear a hollow sound. The further away the city was, the lower the frequency of the hollow sound. The closer, the higher the frequency."
He started to calibrate himself, actually going to the trouble of driving to one of these cities he was calling, to check the mileage on his car's odometer. "I began testing myself if I could tell how far away [a city] was just from the sound," he says. He found he was accurate to within maybe 30 miles. In the process, he learned to identify the various long-distance trunks to Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Reno, and San Diego just by their sound.
By the time Diamond was in his late 20s or early 30s he had learned about blue and black boxes. "I never did [build] a blue box, I was afraid I was going to get caught," he says. But black boxes were another matter. According to his friend Mark Bernay, on days when Diamond's map workers were out on the street he would keep a black box connected to his line — that way the kids wouldn't be charged when they called him from payphones. Diamond eventually crafted a three-line conferencing system with built-in black boxes on each line, so you could call it from anywhere for free. He recalls a conference call he set up for a delighted friend with people in Hawaii, California, and New York, all for free.
Then he hit upon a better idea. Loop arounds were popular in the Los Angeles area and often didn't "supe" — that is, many of the loops didn't look like they answered the phone, just as if they had a black box on them. This meant that calls to their numbers were free. Diamond figured out a way to use this to his advantage. He built a seven-line conferencing system in his basement at 7506 Romaine in West Hollywood. On each of his seven lines he would call one of the Los Angeles area loop around numbers and conference it in. This meant that anybody calling into the other side of any of the loop arounds he had selected would be automatically connected into his conference system. It would be free for him, free for them, and he didn't have to do anything overtly illegal to make it happen.
He even figured out a way to use this to help out his maps business. He made up flyers that said simply, "Kids. Jobs." and listed one of the phone numbers to his conference system, posting them on telephone poles around town. Then, on the conference, he attached a repeating tape recording. The recordings varied. Sometimes they were funny noises or sound effects, like echos or car crashes. Sometimes they explained how the telephone system worked. But they always had an advertisement explaining how you could come work for him, selling maps to stars homes. And they usually had a silent section in the recording, so the people who had called in would get a chance to talk to each other.
"I got a lot of workers out of that," he recalls. "Later it evolved to older and older kids, and then it began to spread out of LA, until I had people calling in from New York. It was called the Maps to Stars Homes Conference Lines. It was very, very popular with phone phreaks. If I didn't run the conference, my phones would ring and ring and ring. As soon as I'd switch it on, within two minutes all seven lines were covered."
His friend Mark Bernay remembers, "For many years Diamond also ran long tapes, changed often, that were either educational about school subjects or telephony topics, and entertainment tapes, mainly in the guise of a fake radio station called 'KILL in Death Valley, California.' He was the first person I know of doing this kind of telephone entertainment and he inspired a bunch of other people to start entertainment lines like his."
Our day was drawing to a close. Diamond had picked up his map workers and dropped them off in various places around town, places where they'd be picked up by friends or family or where they could catch a bus home. On the way back to the airport we make a quick stop so that Diamond can buy a copy of 2600, the hacker quarterly. "I read every issue, cover to cover," he says. Fighting a bit of traffic we eventually reach the airport. Diamond drops me off, we say our goodbyes, and I run to catch my flight.
It is a few months later that I hear the news. I recall something that Diamond said to me over lunch on that April day in Burbank:
"I'm not really in good shape. The stress and aggravation of the way the world is, earning a living and dealing with government and taxes and general assholes in the world has ruined my health. I should have been dead when I was in my fifties. The fruit has saved me. But the powers that are bringing me down are more powerful than the fruit. They're going to win eventually. The worst possible thing for your health is old age."
Arthur Alan Diamond passed away on July 10, 2008, at a farmer's market, buying fruit.
Author interview with Al Diamond, 2008. Photos courtesy Mark Bernay.
Maps To Stars' Homes, a video interview with Diamond from Miles Del Ray on Vimeo. (If you get an error from vimeo when attempting to watch this video, try clicking "Use original player" in the lower left hand corner of the vimeo screen.)
Dial-a-Joke Telephone Entertainment Phone Recordings, audio recordings of old telephone entertainment lines from the 1960s and 1970s. Includes recordings of Diamond's Maps To Stars Homes line.