In a nation of strangers, they are a seven-digit ticket to distant cities, a $2 contract for friendship without obligation.
Callers drop in for a three-minute share of a conversation that began before they telephoned and goes on ever after, 24 hours a day by touch-tone telephone.
The gregarious make propositions and exchange phone numbers. The philosophical engage in anonymous repartee. Dozens phone in at day's end to talk about what the boss said, or how the math exam went, or what's on TV tonight. Some simply listen.
"Party" lines are the fastest-growing service among the thousands of dial-a-message services springing up across the country. For a $2 fee, callers can be connected for three minutes with as many as a dozen other callers at once, in some cases via telephone networks that stretch across the country.
Los Angeles alone has at least 40 such "gab" lines, some of them in Spanish, some offering special contacts for gay callers, all of them promising "fun conversations" and a chance to "meet new people who share your interests" for the price of a phone call.
"Any girls out there?" one caller inquired on a recent evening.
"My name be Mary," someone said.
"How old are you?"
"Me be 56."
"She's too young for you," someone else piped in.
"I got 56 years' experience, you know? Hello? What's your name?"
"John, you be sounding cute. Why don't you be coming on down here? You be having a job?"
Presently, Mark dropped in.
"Hi, Mark, this is Tammy. Have I talked to you before?"
Tammy Berry is the full-time monitor on the line, whose job it is to make introductions and keep people talking.
"What's goin' on?" Mark asks.
"Not so much."
"So, Mark, what've you been doin' today?"
"I just got home, took a shower."
"Why'd you take a shower?"
"I'm just laying on the bed, right now."
"Fully dressed, I hope?"
"No. I got nothin' on. I just dried off, and now I'm lying on the bed. I got a towel on."
"OK, if it works for you. What color towel is it?"
"I don't have a towel on now. The towel disappeared."
"Kathy, you on the line? Why you laughin'?"
"People just call mostly to have fun, and they exchange phone numbers," Berry explained later. "Some people make dates with each other, but basically, I think people just want to talk and have a good time. Some people are lonely, they want to talk about their problems."
"You just call to talk, that's about it," said Brian Wilson, a factory worker from Akron, Pa., who phoned in on a nationwide party line network recently. "If you're feeling lonely, it's just like talking to a friend, really. But you feel easier talking about things with somebody you don't know."
By now, a fellow named Chuck was calling in from Orange County.
"Terry, say hi to Chuck," Berry said.
"What's goin' on, Terry?"
"Where are you?"
"I'm with Christine. Christine, where are we?"
There was a click when the three minutes wound up. And both Terry and Chuck were gone.
Then someone named Nancy got on the line:
"Oh, Jordan," Nancy said. "What are we going to do about life?"
"Go through a life adjustment," Jordan offered.
"Yeah, really. But what are you going to do till next semester?"
Someone else popped in:
"Hi, this is Malibu. Who is this?"
"What's new?" someone asked.
"Hello?" a woman's voice said, a little nervously. "I can't hear you. Malibu? I can't hear anyone."
The woman's voice rose to a near scream. "Jimmy, I can't \o7 hear anyone!"\f7
Ron Petters, a railroad brakeman from San Bernardino, says he calls the party line "just for the hell of it, when I'm bored, nothing else to do."
John, from Chicago, says it must have been one of his male stripper buddies who gave out his phone number over the network. He claims he would never call something like that.
"I think they're playing some kind of prank on me," John said. "I'm a male stripper, you know? What's going on? How do I even know you're from Los Angeles? Are you pretty?"
And \o7 on\f7 it goes. . . .