January 1320, 2000
The once wondrous pay phone may be on its way out.
by Jen Darr
Walk down the street and you are sure to hear many one-sided conversations. Clutching tiny Nokias, businessmen are babbling about business, some talkers are setting up surreptitious lunch dates, and others are calling loved ones to say theyll be late.
The cell phone has become so common an accessory, even purses and backpacks are designed with cute little pockets for their safe transport.
So whats to become of the pay phone, a symbol of both order and disorder in our culture?
In 1889, when inventor William Gray installed the first pay telephone at a bank in Hartford, CT, it was considered a technological wonder.
It was especially relieving for the few who already had phones in their homes. In a letter to the Southern New England Telephone Company, dated July 1888, one customer demanded his phone be removed.
"Gents, will you please send to my house and remove the Telephone. I order the instrument removed because we use it so little and other people use it so much. I am tired of supplying an instrument for an entire village. The last feather was last evening, when a German came to my house to have my wife telephone to Malonys to remove a dead horse from some place a mile or two away. I am long suffering and extremely patient, but the last was too much, and the telephone must go."
The pay phone was democratic: It enabled those who couldnt afford a phone of their own to take part in the luxury if briefly of technology. Poor Germans could even have dead horses removed without pestering the neighbors.
In 1902, a decade after the first pay phone was installed, there were 81,000 pay telephones in the United States.
Today, such devices are hardly a luxury. We only notice them when we need them.
Still, pay phones stir up memories. The college girl cant forget the spot where she called her boyfriend after a visit to the doctor to say the test was negative. The aggressive journalist remembers the phone in the hotel lobby where he filed a breaking news story. A young man visits the same pay phone the same time every Sunday to call his girlfriend who lives a thousand miles away.
But we also abuse pay phones. Drug deals are made with them. Trash is discarded in them. "Fuck You" is scrawled all over them.
Currently, there are at least 50,000 pay phones from Maine to Virginia, and 2.15 million in the entire country, according to Bell Atlantic spokesperson Jim Smith. While exact numbers for Philadelphia are not available, Smith estimates that there are thousands. He says the proliferation of cell phones has begun to "erode" revenues, but his company has responded by inventing fancy new pay phones with Internet access and other high-tech doohickeys. (Dont expect to see such devices on Kensington street corners, however.)
And while politicians, such as Philadelphia City Councilman Darrell Clarke, have proposed legislation that would prohibit the installation of new pay phones in drug-infested areas, Bell has come up with its own methods among them, installing rotary phones so beeper calls cannot be made.
The pay phone, with all its accompanying trash and goo, will remain.
Besides, without them, where would Superman change?