A spooky mystery that has been haunting the streets of New York City has finally been solved.
In May, the Gothamist reported that a slowed-down version of the Mister Softee ice cream jingle had been blaring from some LinkNYC wifi kiosks. These 2.90m tall monoliths, scattered throughout New York City, provide New Yorkers and tourists with free wifi but they’ve also raised privacy concerns among watchdogs because of their weak privacy protections and the possibility they’re being used to track user data. So they’re already kind of creepy. But they’re especially creepy when they’re playing a nightmare clown soundtrack.
Months later—on the day before Halloween, Gothamist received an anonymous email from a burner address, claiming to be the culprit behind the kiosk spooktrack. The sender, using the pseudonym “stupid city,” included a lengthy manifesto explaining their motives: “I have what I guess you’d call a set of grievances about the kiosks, and how the company behind them has failed to do anything particularly innovative with the unearned municipal privilege they enjoy with their monopoly franchise.”
They called the act “an ephemeral kind of performance art that subverts a repugnant piece of street furniture (LinkNYC).”
“For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to feel invisible yet present, and this is as close as I think I’ve come to reaching that goal,” the prankster wrote. “I feel like a ghost, but at the same time I am hiding in plain sight.”
Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz agreed to meet the man behind “stupid city”—Mark Thomas—in midtown. There, Thomas demonstrated his technique. First he uses the free calling feature to call a conference call number he’s set up, then he jacks up the volume, switches to the home screen, and splits.
The recordings start with 60 seconds of silence so he can program multiple kiosks and escape without drawing attention.
Offenhartz observed Thomas at the intersection of 42nd Street and third Avenue as he programmed eight kiosks in a one-block area. “Mostly, New Yorkers react to the song by stealing only a momentary glance at their surroundings, seeming to acknowledge and then accept the oddity without breaking stride,” Offenhartz writes.
A NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications spokesperson told the Gothamist, with millions of people using the kiosks, “it makes sense that among them there’s a prankster.”
Thomas was inspired to funnel his creative sensibilities into the kiosks because they were installed as replacements for the city’s phone booths. He wasn’t upset about the privacy and security risks, but was offended that LinkNYC is being framed as “the payphone of the future,” while he sees them as glowing billboards.
You see, Thomas is a longtime “phone phreak”—a member of the community of proto-hackers who took control of phone systems, often through audio frequencies. He’s had an affection for pay phones his entire life. As a teen he would call a public phone booth on one random street in Tampa Bay and play piano for whoever answered. In the 1990s and 2000s, he kept a database of public payphone numbers, called the Payphone Project, on his website, hoping that other people would use it to call strangers and entertain them like he did.
Thomas was the subject of a 2004 New York Times profile, which focused on his love for pay phones and how his project had helped people searching for lost loved ones and criminals.
“Pay phones are lifelines for the down and out; their booths are rainy-day cocoons,” Thomas told the Times back then. “You lose those, and you lose a lot of windows onto the human condition.”