Silently they stand, on unimportant corners and outside abandoned buildings, waiting for a usefulness that will never be theirs again. The payphone was once an integral component of the American landscape. Now they are overlooked tombstones, remnants of an irrelevant infrastructure.
Payphones have lost a relentless war of attrition in the 21st century. The vital purpose they once served has been supplanted by the transition to a digital age. Hard-wired voice-only technology has been rendered obsolete now that text, photos, video and sound can be transmitted instantaneously around the world. The future has no need for these antique stationary devices in an era where connection is as close and portable as our hip pocket.
But something has been lost in this expansion of communication, something only the payphone could have provided. A sense of privacy, of anonymity, a feeling of freedom that discrete phone booths once bestowed. Before cell phones, people were more present in their lives; less distractible, a little more human.
We also got away with more mischief. Miscreants conducted illicit deals outside convenience stores in the dead of night, and villains plotted their nefarious schemes from shadowy corners, rightly understanding that their conspiracies were for the most part untraceable. Cheating spouses arranged their liaisons via hotel lobby phones, with no fear of their infidelities being discovered. When we hung up a landline phone, we were blissfully unreachable. Now that we can be contacted anywhere, at any time, by anyone, we are all subject to the immediate demands of others, and they can always find out what we’re doing, where we are, or track where we’ve been.
As we rely more and more on our miraculous iphones and androids, we in turn surrender more and more of our secrets, and the intimate details of our private lives are gathered by agencies and companies sworn to protect neither our privacy nor our best interests. The modern age employs algorithms to read between the lines of our user IDs, passwords, account numbers and browser histories, tirelessly aggregating minutiae about the hopes and fears of the virtual everyone, to be utilized without our knowledge or consent by whomever holds the data.
Payphones respected our confidentiality. All they wanted from us was our pocket change.
In the last century, using a payphone was a kind of cultural ritual. We inserted a quarter in the machine, dialed a number, made plans, and hung up. It was frustrating and inconvenient at times, of course, and there was no guarantee that you’d reach the person you were calling, but we made the best of it.
As it happens, modern communications are also frustrating and inconvenient, in new and different ways. Never has it been easier to ignore people by screening calls. Nor has it ever been simpler to interrupt a vacation with workplace emergencies, or to scuttle plans at the last minute. Instant communication allows alteration of plans again and again, keeping your device buzzing in your pocket until, at last, the plan is finally cancelled. Payphones could never have dreamed of being so annoying.
Intertwined with the frustration and limitation of the phone booth was the strangely sweet romance of the things. A wistful joy was found in landline connection, a certain thrill in seeking out a little kiosk where we could call our sweetheart from the road. Runaways called home from the safety of those booths and kiosks, and reporters called in breaking news from courthouse phone banks. The soundtrack of life echoed with the clink of coins in that shiny chrome slot, the musical tone sung by each number on the keypad, the impersonal dial tone and the hopeful ring. We patiently awaited our turn at the booth, we made sure we had enough change in case we needed to make a call. It was humbling, but it made us all feel democratically linked. Only rich jerks possessed the first generation of car-phones or portable cellular devices. Those yuppies weren’t one of us, they were just self-centered pricks with the newest gadget.
Now, all of us are those self-centered pricks.
I’m not arguing that we should turn back the clock to days of restricted communications, but it is understood that modern communication ironically fosters alienation as it intimately connects us. Whether this is the product of a feeling of isolation – the substitution of virtual engagement versus actual physical proximity – or the nervous tension of constant reminders that other people’s lives appear more fulfilling than our own, it is a real phenomenon. Rates of suicide and mental illness have only increased in the internet age, and electronic intimidation and bullying are much more daunting than analog equivalents. Prank phone calls and high-school meanness usually failed to completely shatter the psyche of their targets. Now, one spiteful tweet can drive a child to take their own life.
The advent of COVID-19 has driven a final nail in the coffin of publicly-used technology. We’d have to carry sanitary wipes, gloves, and masks to even come near one of the things now. The very fact that someone else may have touched that handset will make us wary forevermore. The potential for disease transmission is simply too great to risk. Global pandemic will make us second-guess the hazards of contagion in all public spaces for a long time to come.
Even without this threat, the payphone’s fate is sealed. Most of those remaining on the street don’t even work properly. Handsets are broken, kiosks vandalized, and the infrastructure that kept them functional is fading away. The vast majority are empty shells, their equipment removed for scrap, their aluminum and plastic booths outdated sentinels awaiting destruction.
Let us spare a thought for this once-proud institution, doomed to perdition, damned by the modern age. Envy the simplicity of an earlier era, and raise a glass behind your doors of quarantine. Remember the noble payphone.
May they rest in peace. And in 20th century movies.
N.B. All images in this photo essay were captured in New Orleans and taken with a Polaroid Land Camera, another obsolete technology.