As featured in TimeOut NY February 14, 2011
There was always a touch of seediness and sadness to pay phones. Drug dealers made calls from them, and otherwise respectable people planning assignations. ln the movies any character who used a pay phone was either in trouble or contemplating a crime. They came with their own special chewing gum jammed in the coin slot and scattered pamphlets from the Jehovah’s Witness. You used to hear people standing at pay phones and cursing them. They were instruments of torture sometimes, requiring fistfuls of change in those pre-phone card days and an operator who was a real person stood between you and whomever you were trying to call. And when the call went wrong, as communication often does, the pay phone provided a focus for rage. A lot of humanity flowed through these places and in the muteness of each pay phone’s little space a lot of emotion. A plaque on every pay phone should describe how a woman broke up with her fiance’ here, or how a young ball player learned he made the team. There should be a row of plaques below the sweaty phones used almost only by men outside the maternity ward. Before pay phones became endangered I never thought of them as public spaces. They suggest the human average and belong to anybody who knows somebody who would accept a Collect Call. Now I see they belong to a former commonality our culture is no longer sure it needs.