Imagine this. It’s 1984 and you’re 13 years old. You live in a working-class suburb 30 minutes outside of Detroit. It’s summer. You’re bored and spend most days hanging at your best friend’s air-conditioned house, where you get to crank Van Halen all day because his parents are never around.
One steamy day, the coolest high school kid on the street asks if you’ve ever dialed the Pipeline. You and your friend look at each other and shrug. The cool guy smiles and tells you to dial three digits, 211, from a push-button phone and then simply listen. He says the Pipeline is a public telephone portal and a great way to meet girls.
Three minutes later you’re in your best friend’s living room, where the two of you flip a coin to see who gets to dial the Pipeline first. You win and experience a brief pang of nervousness as you reach for the green telephone and dial 211.
At first there’s nothing but silence. You’re waiting for the line to go dead, but then you hear voices. Faint at first, but yes, there are definitely people talking. You hear laughter and yelling, but you also catch two-way conversations between people arranging meeting places and exchanging phone numbers. The more you listen, the more you realize how local this mysterious telephone portal is. The meet-up destinations are public places you know well. The phone numbers tossed back and forth are all in your area.
Turns out the Pipeline is real. You have no idea how it works, but that means nothing. It’s an addictive discovery that occupies the rest of your 1984 summer and many other 1980s summers. You dial in at all hours of the day. There’s always activity. The Pipeline is never silent.
You eventually say things like “Hi!” and “Hey, anybody out there go to Stevenson Junior High?” You use fake voices and names to create your own cast of Pipeline characters. But the one thing you never do, despite numerous offers from captivating female voices, is give out your real phone number. You know Mom will kill you if you do that. As for the phone numbers various Pipeline girls throw your way, they all turn out to be fake. You hear stories from kids at school that involve older brothers and their friends allegedly meeting beautiful girls through the Pipeline, but you seriously doubt the validity of such reports.
In the end, The Pipeline was about listening to other young people having innocent fun on an open community phone line that was probably one of the first audio chat rooms in existence. Nobody was mean. Looking back, I realize the opportunity for serious trouble to result from Pipeline encounters was quite real, but I’ve never heard of one tragic Pipeline story. Maybe some bad things did happen, but I’m guessing such incidents were rare. I suppose we were so amazed with the existence of the Pipeline that we never considered the notion that bad people might lurk there, which is quite different from today’s “Internet predator” era. Luckily for us, in the 1980s we never heard the words “Pipeline predator.”
For me, the novelty wore off later in high school. I’m not sure when the Pipeline came to an end, but end it did. What I’m wondering is if the Pipeline was purely a Detroit thing. Were there other 3-digit “Pipelines” in different states? If so, perhaps they went by different names. I have no clue, but I’d love to hear from anybody who has a Pipeline story/stories to share.
By the way, I’ve only found one Detroit Pipeline thread online. My favorite post is from user “Ravine,” who tells the story of meeting two close friends on the Pipeline and how one of them eventually became one of two Best Men at his wedding. It sounds like a true story. I hope it is, because having good experiences was what the 1980s Detroit Pipeline was all about.
Ryan Potter’s latest novel, Roman King and the Armies of Fire and Light, is available in the Kindle Store.