What if I told you pay phones are disappearing to make it harder to escape the Matrix?
Once an artist has died, he belongs to everyone. This is particularly true if he is obscure. Allan Bridge was obscure enough to me albeit I had seen his work at the corner egg creamery, but it would require some decades to connect the man and the cryptic flyer taped to the phone booth at Sid and Howie’s. Sid and Howie’s Famous Egg Cream had stood at the corner of Houston Street and Avenue B since 1946 when their converted luxury liner dropped them off at the West side French Line pier, home from the Salerno beachhead. Two kids from Brooklyn, they had thrived on Army life, parlaying their meager GI salaries into a sizable nest egg playing cards on the troop ships. They opened their luncheonette, a lifetime dream, and ordered up three New York Bell call boxes for the back of the store. Bookmaking was thirsty work — the egg creams and tuna sandwiches flowed like a metaphor in the desert.
The early 1980s, and a conceptual artist from a neighboring loft block, a regular, showed up for his usual, an individual-sized canned salmon on Catskills rye bread. His arrival was heralded by the smell of mimeograph ink from the freshly printed ream he carried under one arm. “Hey, can I put this up by your telephones? Okay, right?” It would be okay.
Along the bottom edge a repeating telephone number was written at right angles, scored for easy removal.
“That guy,” said Howie Davis, mopping up after closing.
“The artist, salmon on rye. Yeah?”
“He’s collecting apologies.”
“Who’d a guessed.”
* * *
Late one night in the fall of 1980, Allan Bridge started illicitly slapping up eye-catching posters around TriBeCa, a rough-edged neighborhood then called the Lower East Side, encouraging wrongdoers to “get your misdeeds off your chest!”
By the time Mr. Bridge, a conceptual artist, returned the next morning to his loft in the flower district, tired and drunk, his nascent confessional telephone service had already received a couple of calls. And over the next 15 years, the Apology Line recorded more than a half-million messages: apologies, confessions, delusions, truths, half-truths and everything in between.
In August 1995, Mr. Bridge was struck and killed by a Jet Ski rider while scuba diving off the coast of Southampton on Long Island. At the time of his death, the Apology Line was receiving around 100 calls a day from across the continent.
The original line tended to be dark in nature; people confessed to everything, from murders and mutilations to sexual affairs and drug dependencies. But there were also plenty of trivial and tender messages. For Mr. Bridge, it became something deeply meaningful.
By the time of his death, people had confessed to about everything, from murders and mutilations to sexual affairs and drug dependencies. But there were also plenty of trivial and tender messages. One young boy called to apologize for snapping a girl’s bra strap in class.
It’s 3 AM. A call comes in to a telephone answering machine that sits on a bookcase in a Lower Manhattan loft. Street noise in the background indicates that the call is from Times Square. Someone is counting change and sighing. A male voice says, “I killed her.” The voice chokes, forcing out every syllable. “I... I... I had to kill her.” Just then he hangs up.
In midafternoon, a perky young girl calls: ”My friends are in a gang at school called the Wanderers. They said I could become a member if I would shoplift. I don’t know whether I really want to shoplift. I’ve just called to tell you how I feel about this.”
The Apology Line, as the mute answering machine is called, is the brainchild of Allan Bridge, who went by Mr. Apology, an artist and carpenter who established the line when he was in his thirties. In late October of 1980 he plastered Times Square with ads that read, “You have wronged people. It is people that you must apologize to, not to the State, not to God. Get Your Misdeeds Off Your Chest! Call Apology (212) 255-2748.”
Originally the telephone service was an art project intended to assemble tapes of criminals confessing their crimes, for public replay in a Soho gallery. Instead the line has mushroomed into a confessional, with callers phoning from California, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Canada to own up to everything from petty theft to incest. To varying degrees, all these callers are trying to overcome or avoid loneliness, a serious but underpublicized problem in today’s society. Philosophers and psychologists have concocted a host of neuroses, syndromes, and conditions to explain the problems of human estrangement and alienation. However, according to Dr. Robert Weiss, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, all these sad emotional states may be nothing but plain, old-fashioned loneliness.
— David McCleary on iLongevity.com
“The purpose of apology is to provide a way for criminals and wrongdoers to apologize for their misdeeds in the hope that this will help them turn over a new leaf. At the end of this program you may record any statement you care to make.”
— Allan Bridge
A similarly themed phone line surfaced in 2013, operated by a Brooklyn artist inspired by the original project. He put up Mr. Bridge’s posters in various city neighborhoods and on Craigslist, with a new phone number and a voice mail system operated through Google Voice.
Allan Bridge, who received about a half-million messages over 15 years.
“A voice inside of me said there’s no reason that the line had to die just because Allan died,” said the artist, who asked to remain anonymous for reasons of safety and legality (it is unclear what his liability might be if someone confessed a crime, for example). “It’s an outlet, and some people need that outlet.” Although the venture is still in its infancy — it has received fewer than 200 calls so far, and not all seemed genuine — it is again providing an anecdotal window on perceptions of wrongdoing and human nature in the city. In one message, a man apologizes to his friend’s sister for inappropriately touching her while she was asleep. In another, a woman expresses regret for stealing from a store and swearing at its owner.
“While the new project appears to be the first attempt to replicate the Apology Line in New York, efforts to use the old recordings have been made before in dance, documentary, fiction, film and, soon, theater. Greg Pierotti, one of the makers of ‘The Laramie Project,’ is writing a theatrical production based on Mr. Bridge’s line. ‘Allan Bridge poured his heart and soul into the Apology Line for 15 years,’ Mr. Pierotti said in an e-mail. ‘The line was like a living entity to him born of a dynamic interplay between Allan and the thousands of callers he touched. There was nothing static about it. He administered to a community of living voices.’ The man behind the new service, who is 38, said he learned of the original last year after buying a compact disc featuring a segment broadcast in 2004 on the radio show This American Life. The find came at a crucial moment in his life; as a former drug and alcohol addict, he had reached Step 9, making amends, in a 12-step recovery program. ‘I look at the line as this process for those who aren’t addicts or aren’t in recovery, the everyday person who can benefit from taking this step,’ he explained.
“Marissa Bridge, Mr. Bridge’s widow, who has since remarried, said she had mixed feelings about the emergence of another Apology Line. Mr. Bridge had wanted people to start their own lines, and even made available information on how to go about it, she said, but her views have shifted in the 18 years after his death. ‘I feel like the sands of time are burying Allan,’ she said, ‘and those who are inspired by his genius but don’t transform it into their own artwork are robbing his grave and skulking away in silence.’ The line has also returned in a vastly different era. The original began in a year when the city logged a record-breaking 2,228 homicides, pay phones were ubiquitous and the answering machine was novel technology. Now, an increasingly gentrified New York is experiencing record lows in crime, while cellphones and social media are the norm. Indeed, the man behind the new line said he planned to fulfill some of this online legacy, initially by creating YouTube videos featuring calls he had received.
“The original Apology Line, which evolved into a touch-tone answering machine service that allowed callers to navigate categories of confessions and then leave responses to them, appears adaptable to the Facebook era, with its disembodied, semi-anonymous community of confessors.”
— Joe Jackson in the New York Times, August 18, 2013
Allan Bridge and his Mr. Apology project are real-life prompts that inspired a story of mine called
The Palm Court Cellist, the anchor of a book
in progress by the same name, a continuation of
Midwife in the Tire Swing.
Sid and Howie Davis are real folks, Clinton and Houston real streets on New York's Lower East Side. I lived there in the early 60s.
Wikipedia — Allan Bridge
Apology on This American Life (YouTube)
All Apologies, an appreciation by Lydia Nibley
The documentary that languished for lack of funding: Untold Stories, Abandoned Films [New York Times. Requires a free log-in; they want your email address.]
copyright 2020 Rob Hunter