Coin phones, once a familiar part of the landscape, are fading fast

By Dale Short
Posted 8/2/17

Daily Mountain Eagle

Looking for a pay phone? You might be looking for a while.

A generation ago, the familiar blue boxes seemed to be on nearly every street corner. But these days the next generation of phoners will likely grow up without the …

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Coin phones, once a familiar part of the landscape, are fading fast

Posted

Daily Mountain Eagle

Looking for a pay phone? You might be looking for a while.

A generation ago, the familiar blue boxes seemed to be on nearly every street corner. But these days the next generation of phoners will likely grow up without the classic phrase “Please deposit 25 cents” (or later, 50 cents) as a pop-culture reference point, much less a joyous voice in the wilderness when engine trouble or an empty gas tank strikes.

One study shows that the number of roadside phones has shrunk by more than 90 percent since the pay phones’ heyday in the early 1990s. It’s no coincidence that another study says 95 percent of Americans in big cities have cell phones.

Walker County is no exception. Call up AT&T and ask where some pay phones are located, and a spokesperson says “We got out of the pay phone business eight or nine years ago.” At Verizon, the exact story.

But if you keep an eye out for the vanishing breed of telephones, they turn out to be tenacious as ragweed, though about as useful — most vandalized, the receivers and keyboard cut out or smashed — and many entangled in brambles or goldenrod.

And they’ve been hanging on quite a while, ever since before the days of full-scale booths when Superman wouldn’t be without one for a quick costume change.

(Without phone booths, we wouldn’t have possibly the best football commentary quote from the late Ken Stabler, about a particularly talented running back: “That boy’s so quick, you couldn’t hem him up in a phone booth.”)

But to begin at the beginning — which is a lot further back than we think, being 1880 — there were public phones but not coin-operated ones. A live attendant stood beside the phone, collected your money, and connected your call. It would be about 10 years before a gentleman named William Grey invented the automated call process. The breakthrough didn’t exactly catch on like wildfire, but by 1925 about 25,000 phones occupied New York City alone. In 1960 the Bell System installed its one millionth pay phone booth. The system hit its peak in 1965 with 2.5 million pay phones, but in 2009 the giant companies started selling them off in an arrangement called COCOT, or customer-owned coin-operated telephones. The phones’ landlords took a cut of the total calls made in a day. Not exactly a way to get rich.

The small independent companies mostly fell down on the job. Many of this area’s dilapidated pay phones have a carrier name and toll-free number on the front, but calls to the former operating companies (from cell phones, of course) either go unanswered or have been disconnected.

In New York City, where the boom started, a new system is being installed. It’s called LINK, a combination Wi-Fi hotspot and pay phone (although the phones are free to use, which well may make “pay phone” a term out of the past.)

As with many fading traditions, the disappearing pay phones have spawned gathering places on the Web where hobbyists can post a list of local pay phones (some of which actually work) and their addresses, and memorialize the antiques with documentary photos from around the world. If there are maestros of phones from this faded world, one of them is a concert pianist from New York City named Mark Thomas who has his own phone Web page named sorabji.com. “David Letterman had skits where he used to call pay phones around New York and talk to strangers,” Thomas says. “I was partly inspired by that and in ninth grade I used to call a pay phone on Kennedy Boulevard outside the University of Tampa where I took piano lessons. The spot was known for being hotbed of prostitution and crime.

“I played cassette tapes of my piano playing for whoever answered. I’m not sure that, at the time, I knew what prostitution was, but dipping in that world was intriguing to me.”

The slow death of the pay phone is generally attributed to the explosion in cell phone use, but some experts also blame corporate America. Many fast-food chains have decided that pay phones attract “the wrong element” to their stores and have had the phones removed. In the meantime, if you see a lone roadside pay phone on Highway 78, it might not be a bad idea to take a snapshot for your kids or grandkids to help them imagine what life was like in the early 2000s. (Were these robots of some type, who were crushed in some long-ago war?) And if your favorite antique phone is decorated with vines and goldenrod, all the better.

Dale Short’s email address is dale.short@gmail.com