September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

To America Online humor columnist Bill Shein, interactivity goes far beyond trading e-mails with visitors to his ”Buzzsaw” site. Before leaving to write his second annual cross-country travelogue last month, the D.C.-based writer solicited invitations from readers to stay at their homes for some human interaction during his 10-day trek. Shein had few qualifications: ”They had to have places where they could show me around, plan out interesting stuff, and…oh, yeah, not kill me.”

Shein, 31, a single ex-stand-up comic who draws around 200,000 readers to his daily jokes and goofily exasperated essays, received hundreds of invitations, some creepier than others. ”When I saw e-mail that was written at 4:30 in the morning with no punctuation or capitalization, and it just said ‘Yeah, you can come stay with me,’ I screened those out pretty quickly.”

The winners were a Big Timber, Mont., couple who took him fishing and shooting (”You can’t go to Montana and not fire a gun”) and a Chicago art student who took him to see the Second City improv troupe and to a sensory-deprivation-tank center. (Shein paid for the activities and threw in ”Buzzsaw” T-shirts.) They ”were excellent hosts,” says Shein, ”and not fans of Kathy Bates’ character in Misery. I was not hobbled in either location.” He’s hoping to visit even more readers on next summer’s trip — or possibly sooner. ”I fully intend to — particularly when I’m just on vacation and in need of a place to stay,” he says. ”I’ll call and say ‘Remember me? Yeah…sure I’m still on the same trip.”’

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