By Melissa Kirsch
A crowd gathered in Times Square recently for the removal of what the city promoted as New York’s last public pay phone. “End of an Era,” declared the news release headline, even though the era when pay phones played any meaningful role in New Yorkers’ lives certainly ended long ago.
One might be forgiven for feeling a bit nostalgic. Pay phones are vestiges of the analog world, before the “I’ll be 15 minutes late” text, when long-distance was a consideration and people on calls in public got their own private booths.
“People miss a period of time when a call meant something,” Mark Thomas of The Payphone Project told The Times. “When you planned it and you thought about it, and you took a deep breath and you put your quarter in.”
He added: “There was often something dramatic about a call from a payphone. The caller might have important information to pass on, good news or bad. They were also used by spies and other shady figures to avoid detection … or by a husband or wife cheating on their spouse.”
I’ve been considering the familiar refrain about smartphones, that they’ve made our lives easier to navigate at the expense of our manners, our attention, our safety while driving. We may be physically present, but we’re never really there.
Pay phones were stationary monotaskers. Before cellphones, if you wanted to talk to someone, you did it at home, at work or in a booth. Your telecommunications were contained to these discrete spaces, separate from the rest of your life. Pay phones may be nearly obsolete, but there’s nothing stopping us from reinstituting some of their boundaries in a post-pay-phone world.
What might this look like for you? For me, it would mean pulling over to the side of the road to send a text rather than dictating my message to Siri. I’d step out of the pedestrian flow and into the phone booth of the mind to listen to voice mail. I wouldn’t check social media while waiting for a friend to arrive at a bar. Long phone calls would take place at home, not while I’m on a walk or sitting on a park bench, ostensibly enjoying the outdoors.
My sentimental ideal of the phone booth — Richard Dreyfuss calling Marsha Mason from outside her apartment in the rain at the end of “The Goodbye Girl” — is a time capsule, a romantic vision of the past. But the phone booth as metaphor, as inspiration for creating boundaries between virtual and real life, still seems useful today.
Credit: New York Times Morning