A phone message to the nation: Please call 510-872-7326; Marc Horowitz wants to meet you for dinner.
Go ahead -- dial it. If he doesn’t answer, just leave him a message. That’s what thousands of people have done after seeing his number scrawled on a dry-erase board in a Crate & Barrel catalog photo last fall.
Horowitz, a conceptual artist in San Francisco, was working as a photo assistant on a shoot for the catalog when he came up with an idea for an art project that would question social barriers and maybe make the world a little smaller.
The dry-erase board looked too blank, so he decided to write his cellphone number on it -- and, if anyone called, maybe take a road trip to meet them.
“It’s about illuminating the importance of conversation between strangers,” said Horowitz, 28. “We just plug into our computers and think that’s the way to live, but old-fashioned face to face is what it’s about.”
It’s not his first madcap art project aimed at bringing people together. Last year, he ran errands with strangers, which consisted of picking out their cereal and folding their laundry. He also regularly sets up a coffeemaker in Alamo Square Park and hands out free coffee to passers-by.
The dinner tour was supposed to be a three-month journey to meet a few dozen people, but it has ballooned to include thousands of lonely souls. Horowitz left earlier this month and plans to crisscross the country for at least a year.
But exactly who calls a number they see in a photo on the page of a Crate & Barrel catalog?
Gregg Piazzi, 36, a chef who lives in Columbus, Ohio, was caller No. 34. He saw the number while flipping through the catalog, and stopped turning pages when he noticed it was not one of those fake 555-numbers.
“What are you doing?” his fiancee asked when Piazzi whipped out his cellphone.
“There’s a real phone number in here,” he said as he dialed. “I gotta call.”
Horowitz answered, they talked for a few minutes, and now dinner with Piazzi is a planned stop on the nationwide tour.
Of course, callers left some nutty messages, including the occasional angry rant and at least one offer for sex. Many just hung up. Some yakked on and on about how they were raised by nuns, work at a gas station or take several kinds of medication.
“A lot of people are lonely and they just want to talk to somebody,” Horowitz said. “I think people are looking for excitement -- maybe I’ll call this number, where is it going to lead? I think it’s just curiosity and about people wanting to reach out and connect with somebody.”
The first call was from a Kansas man named Jake, “and it just started propelling east and west from there,” Horowitz said.
Horowitz eventually added his e-mail address and website to his voicemail greeting. After some publicity, his inbox was jammed with e-mails -- dinner invitations, random ramblings and flirtations -- from New Hampshire grandmothers to Florida firefighters.
They beg him to visit their homes and towns, offering “a mean lasagna” in Georgia, a “place to crash” in Massachusetts, “something like chicken and dumplings” in Alabama, coffee in Wisconsin and Shabbat dinner in Maryland.
In their e-mails, they share intimate details. One woman in Las Vegas is saving up for gastric bypass surgery and another in Texas is going through a “divorce from hell.” Nonetheless, she thinks “your dining with strangers across America is neato!”
One after another, they gush about how much they love Horowitz and his attempt to have dinner with thousands of strangers, a venture that “put a smile on my face and a skip in my step,” a fan chirped from Texas.
“It is because of people like you that I have a renewed hope in mankind,” one woman confessed in a 6:25 a.m. note.
“Congratulations for giving us something to talk about outside of the election, terrorism and Paris Hilton,” another wrote from Pennsylvania last fall.
Horowitz sold his truck, bought a mini-RV, sublet his apartment and held a garage sale to help fund his journey. He has rejected offers to turn his adventure into a TV show or documentary, which he believes would poison the organic purity of the conversations he hopes to have. But, he allows, he might write a book.
Some people would rather light themselves on fire than eat dinner with their own families, much less a houseful of strangers lonely enough to dial a random number. What is Horowitz thinking?
“It’s about really listening and knowing that everybody has something important to say and that their stories are fascinating,” he says.
“This is real conversation with real people -- it’s something you can’t buy.”