A Pay Phone, You Say? Why, Whatever is That? | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Pay Phone, You Say? Why, Whatever is That?


Published July 1, 2009 at 9:28 p.m.

Today, I saw the most extraordinary sight. I wish I had my camera with me so I could have taken a picture. Surely, no one will believe what I'm about to write.

In the middle of the afternoon, as I drove along Main Street in Burlington, I saw someone feeding quarters into a pay phone. Yes, a pay phone. One of those telephones with a cord that require the user insert quarters in order to make a call. They are often covered in bad graffiti, fossilized chewing gum and dried spit.

Now, needless to say, I was fairly shocked by the sight of this youngish man at the phone booth. I thought pay phones had assumed their place in the pantheon of technological relics occupied by things like the phonograph, the telex machine and the dot matrix printer. Everyone from gum-snapping tweens to denture-wearing grannies has cell phones these days, effectively rendering the utilitarian pay phone obsolete.

But clearly, I was wrong. This fellow, dutifully pushing his coins into the slot, proved that I am not as smart as I make myself out to be. So everyone doesn't have a cell phone, apparently. Some people communicate the old-fashioned way — standing in one place, in a spit-stained booth, pressing a receiver to their ear that about 10,000 other people have also had pressed to their ears.

Surprisingly, this fellow's act of using quarters to make a call stirred some feelings of nostalgia in me that I hadn't felt since the last time I saw someone jamming out with a Walkman, which was many years ago. I was reminded of a time when I used to have to call my parents for a ride after basketball practice in middle school. I would root around my gym bag for some spare change and then sidle up to the pay phone and punch in my home phone number, hoping to god my parents were home and would agree to come fetch me. It was more often the case that I had just spent my last bits of change on a Mountain Dew and a Ding Dong from the school vending machine and I had to call my folks collect. They would pretend to the operator that they didn't know who I was and then grudgingly accept the call. I would beg them to pick me up and they would yell at me for calling them collect. Ahhh, memories.

Anyway, the other day, while doing very important journalism, I found myself in need of a pay phone. I was in Enosburg, where cell reception was equivalent to what one might find on the moon, and I was lost. I needed to call the fellow I was meant to meet and tell him that I had lost my way and that I needed directions to his house. After cursing out my BlackBerry's crap reception and causing something of a scene in a gas station parking lot, I looked around for a pay phone. After finding none, I popped into the mini-mart attached to the gas station and asked the teenager behind the counter if there was a pay phone nearby.

She was like, "A what?,"  hardly containing her disdain for me having so rudely asked her a question while she was prattling to her friend behind the counter about her previous night's dalliances.

And I was all like, "Uh, a pay phone. The kind that has a cord and you put coins in it to make a call and the booths are covered in spit."

She said they didn't have one at the gas station and she didn't know where I might find one. But kindly, she did allow me to use the mini-mart's landline, as long as I was making a local call. I was, I said, and thanked her for being a gem. I got directions, the old-fashioned way — by asking for them — and off I trotted.

The point of this whole post, and yes there is a small nugget of a point, is that pay phones are the technological dinosaur of our age. This is not news to anyone. But that there is still a need for them, well, that's heartening. It makes me a little misty to think it.