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Jam Line: Remembering a Twin Cities teen phenomenon

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Russell Jones and his vintage tape recorder
Russell Jones at home, holding his vintage tape recorder.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

It was a jarring cacophony of sounds and voices. Young teens met up with strangers. Parents were clueless about how their kids spent time behind closed doors. Most people lied about their ages. 

This was long before the Internet - it was the era of rotary phones. The so-called "Jam Line" captivated Twin Cities teens from the late '60s to the early '80s. In other cities, kids called them "beep beep" lines. 

A flaw in the phone switching system allowed multiple people to dial into the same phone number and hear each other. An obnoxiously loud busy signal blared in the background, so kids would shout out phone numbers to call each other back.  As soon as the phone company found out about a Jam Line, they would shut it down, but teens would find a new one, and the new Jam Line number would spread through the high schools like wildfire.

Russell Jones was a teenager at Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis in 1977 when he first heard about the Jam Line from a buddy.

"Me and my nerdy friends were in gym class getting picked on and in the process of the whole thing he said, 'Have you ever called the Jam Line?'" said Jones. "I said 'Jam Line? What's that?'  He said, 'That's a phone number you call to pick up girls.'"  

In his house in East Bethel, Jones still has reel-to-reel tapes of the Jam Line and some of the calls to girls he and his friends recorded. 

• Reporter's notebook: Get that on tape!

The old audio is a time capsule from the '70s. Teens compared their favorite music, roller skating rinks, or TV shows, like "The Bionic Woman." But the flirting was timeless, if not particularly risque. 

Girl: What color are your eyes?

Boy: Blue.

Girl: Blue eyes (sigh) mine are brown. Sometimes.

Boy: What color is your hair?

Girl: Medium brown...with a little bit of frostiness, it's coming out though.

Missy Hamilton
Missy Hamilton, in the striped shirt, photographed with friends on her birthday in 1978 or 1979 during the era she called the "Jam Line." Note her Andy Gibb poster in the background.
Photo courtesy of Missy Hamilton

Boy: Just hang on a sec, OK? My mom's calling me.

The Jam Line was rife with teenage intrigue.

"Everybody lied about their age," said Missy Hamilton, who called the Jam Line in the late '70s when she was growing up in St. Louis Park. "And most people lied about their name to begin with."  

Hamilton used to say she was 16 or 17. She was really 14. For her, the appeal of the Jam Line was simple: boys. Older boys.

"I think people always want to meet people and at that age, you can't go to a club. You can't do things that cost money because you have none. It was free, it was there, it was exciting ... and it was addicting," said Hamilton. "So, you wanted to do it all the time."    

Russell Jones, a guy who was too nervous to even look at a girl in school, could spend hours talking with girls he met through the Jam Line.

"You didn't have to meet. You could be anybody you want. Course, the girls were always looking for Andy Gibb. He was the sex symbol back then. 'Do you look like Andy Gibb?' That was one of their questions," said Jones.

Missy Hamilton, who met Jones through the Jam Line, confirms that Gibb was the "it" boy.

"I loved Andy Gibb. I was going to marry him. My wallpaper was Andy Gibb," she remembers with a laugh. 

TALKING WITH STRANGERS

Jones observed there were two sorts of people who called the Jam Line: troubled souls, and those who wanted to help. Girls told Jones their problems, and in turn, they gave him advice about what they liked in guys.  

"The person that I am today is the product of literally hundred of teenage girls from the 1970s," said Jones.  "They'd tell me what they liked, you know, how to change your appearance, how to dress. Girls are good for that stuff." 

Russell Jones, back in the day
Russell Jones was a teenager at Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis in 1977 when he first heard about the Jam Line from a buddy.
Photo courtesy Russell Jones

Hamilton thought Jones was nice, soft-spoken, and someone she could trust.  

"We talked for a long time before we met," said Jones.  "And she had heard from other people on the Jam Line that I was this nerdy, ugly scuzzy guy. Don't meet him! She met me anyway. That meant a lot to me." 

Missy Hamilton didn't always meet the boys she was talking with. Whole romances could happen over the phone:

"Lots of them you didn't meet but you had serious relationships on the phone. You know, you were elite, you'd fight and then you were done," said Hamilton. "You never set eyes on the other person."

For Jones, there was an art to finally meeting the girl. His favorite meeting spot was the IDS Crystal Court, by the escalators. 

"If you talked for a very long time, you were almost always disappointed because you would form a mental image based on the sound of the voice, and then you'd meet them and it was like meeting them for the first time even though you knew everything there was to know about them," said Jones.  "But most of the time when you'd meet, that was usually one of the last conversations you'd have. But who cares? Just get on the line and meet someone new!"

LOVE ON THE TELEPHONE

Some of the lying on Jam Line could lead to awkward situations. Jones remembers one date when he and a buddy took two girls from the Jam Line out on a drive. They suggested the girls show them their high school. 

"And they took us to what they said was their high school. I remember thinking it was kinda small to be a high school," said Jones. 

When they brought the girls home, two angry mothers were waiting out front. 

Russell Jones's tape recorder
Russell Jones's tape recorder.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Jones remembers one of the mothers threatened, "I don't know who you are but I got your license plate, you're going to jail!"

It turned out the girls were 12. The building they'd shown their dates was their elementary school. The mothers calmed down once they were convinced that nothing had happened. 

Missy Hamilton says she and her friends always met boys in groups, and the only bad thing that ever happened was when some older boys they met on the Jam Line walked off with some things from her parents' house after a party. 

Mostly, Jam line was a ticket to the exotic: Getting to know new kids from across town.

Girl: So what school do you go to?

Boy: Edison High.

Girl: Edison High. I've never even heard of it. Named after Thomas Edison?

Boy: Yup.

Girl: That figures.

Missy Hamilton says she and her group of friends in St. Louis Park met boys from all over the city. 

"We were pretty sheltered because my group of friends was all in a six-block radius, and we didn't go much out of that six-block radius at that age, until then," said Hamilton.

Jones estimates he met hundreds of girls in the years he called the Jam Line. 

"At one time, I must have known at least one girl from every high school in the seven-county metro area," said Jones.

Before he got his license, he took the bus all over the Twin Cities to meet them. 

"And after you associate these good memories -- because I made good friends -- with riding the bus, and I thought, 'You know, driving a bus would be kinda cool.' "

Russell Jones has now been driving a bus for Metro Transit for 24 years. 

"It's like a trip down memory lane to drive the bus, because I've got these memories of meeting all these girls off Jam Line everywhere in the Twin Cities."

Jones met his wife not on the Jam Line, but through one of his regular passengers. Sometimes he and other passengers who grew up in the Twin Cities reminisce about the Jam Line. 

Missy Hamilton met the man she would marry on the CB radio while cruising the Hopkins strip. Russell Jones, her friend from the Jam Line, introduced her to the CB radio and the Hopkins scene and she never looked back. 

(Russell Jones shot this footage of cruising the Hopkins Strip on 8mm film in 1978. Story continues below.

The Jam Line disappeared in the mid-'80s as the phone company converted to electronic switches. But it wouldn't be long before teens would find new technology to connect with strangers.  Internet chatrooms emerged just a few years later.

What remains of the Twin Cities Jam Line might just be the few tapes Russell Jones managed to record and save.

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