A few feet away from a pay phone in the Kenton neighborhood, a small, faded, sidewalk mural proclaims: “We survive.” Seeing this I always reflect on the woes of that shabby, nearby pay phone, a relic of the past. As you’ll soon find out, not many pay phone booths are equipped with phones, while others house defunct receivers. But there remain a few operational public phones that could help you make that call. While I was in the throes of my sporadic research, the Portland Mercury beat me to the topic by offering up an editorial piece on public phones. I continued with my survey, possibly to prove I’m not ready for prime time in comparison, but also with the realization that I have a different take on such matters.
photo by Sandy Smith
Let’s consider the scorn public phones endure in the age of cell phone technology. In a facebook post, my old friend Dave Bjorkback combined a beeper joke with a photo of his encounter with a pay phone in an airport. My man may have been desperate for likes but he was also on target on two counts with his multi-layered joke about antiquated technologies in our increasingly digital world where everyone seems to have access phone technology in their pockets. Although the extinction rate, if such statistics are kept, is probably more staggering than we’d want to imagine, pay phones do survive.
It’s hard to understand why the phone company takes the phones but not the phone booths. Why not haul it away and call it a day? I’m exploring the theory that vandals and antique dealers nick the phones. It would be cool to have an old phone booth phone mounted on one of my walls, working or not. Like elephant ivory and rhino horns, there’s a market for everything. Then again, phone companies may be waiting for the day when cell phones fall out of fashion and it becomes necessary to reinstall phones in these derelict phone booths.
Who wouldn’t miss those times when it was possible to walk down Lombard St and access pay phone after pay phone to make calls or check for spare change? How quaint it seems that hogging a public phone like Rupert Pupkin, from “The King of Comedy,” and attempting to use it as a business line, is joining the reliquary of antique antics punctuating film history.
So if you are in need of a public phone you have to hope that the phone booth you amble up to is equipped with a working unit. You’re going to need actual money too. The only dependable public phones may be those at Max train stops. Studying one of these phones revealed the current rate for a call is 50 cents for ten minutes. Don’t expect to pay less unless you’re willing to sacrifice reception quality.
Streetscapes seem to be in flux with bulky, boxy, boothy contraptions dotting them. It’s time to repurpose these outdated facilities, yet their use is limited. At this point, they are bait and switch machines for those needing to make a call and finding a broken phone or none at all. It’s a mirage in a communication desert.
If you are going to survive, do it in style. Flourish! Don’t crawl towards the finish line in the technology race. If only someone, somewhere, somehow, could make public phones and phone booths cool again.
See a video version of this blog post: https://youtu.be/nnWUDzmPfc8