Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pay phones headed for history's dustbin...

By Jim Heffernan

I don’t carry a cell phone, don’t want one and that’s that. (Amazing how final that can be, but never mind that.)

Still, I admit there are times when a cell phone would be handy, but those moments are rare. Truth is, I could have used one recently when I found myself needing to call home from a remote outpost.

Oh well, there are always public pay phones, you say to yourself. The remote outpost where I found myself was in the heart of the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. And what to my wandering eyes should appear just as I was thinking about calling home but a pay phone. Just outside a main door.

Wonderful. I admit I haven’t used a pay phone in a long time; nobody does. That was clear when I had to wipe away spider webs covering the box surrounding the phone. Spider webs. What does that say to whoever owns the pay phone? And what’s an arachnophobe supposed to do?

Anyway, I cleared the spider webs, popped a quarter into the slot, and dialed up. Two rings and funny noises followed by a recording pointing out that this is a pay phone and money must be deposited. But money WAS deposited, you want to say to the recording, but no point. One quarter down the drain, you figure.

So I slid another quarter into the slot, tried again, same reaction. Then I read the fine print on the surface of the phone: local calls 50 cents. You know you are getting along in years when you remember when they cost a nickel, but never mind that either.

I look back at the era of pay phones with some small nostalgia. I recall witnessing a pay phone call right there at UMD when I was a student there several centuries ago. A kid I knew wanted to break a date with a girl for some dance because he wanted to go with someone else. He recruited a few of his friends to stand near him at a student center pay phone and make noises intended to resemble airplanes taking off and landing as he telephoned to break the date.

The boy making the call was in Air Force ROTC and his fabricated reason for breaking the date was that he had suddenly been called to duty and was telephoning from the airport where he was waiting to take off. So there they were, the caller on the pay phone and several of his buddies surrounding him making airplane sounds. Ah, college.

It is not known if the girl believed him. She probably didn’t realize at the time she was better off not getting involved with someone who would do a thing like that. (The Air Force didn’t realize it wasn’t going to get this guy either. He ended up with a career in the Navy.)

But I stray from the subject of pay phones. I’m afraid they’re going the way of the typewriter, and that’s that. How do I know? A spider told me.


Unknown said...

But Jim, with a cell phone you can call Sammy's and pick up a hot one on your way home. Thus, it is a divine invention. And, Voula can get you to do last-second errands.

Firebottle3 said...


I'm with you on this one. I'm 66 and don't understand the need to be walking and talking 24/7.

IMHO, it is the most devious device ever invented.

I don't own one, never will, it's that simple. FWIW, my wife has one and seldom uses it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I do have a cell phone. I wrote about my cell phone experiences in response to an earlier post. What’s happening now is the phone I own is dying. I do believe I own the phone as the contract period was over several years ago. Though I have to admit I haven’t been able to decipher the contracts small print, my magnifying glass is not that powerful.
The phone is taped together now after my two-year-old grandson offered it back to me one evening. “Grandpas are not to leave things where young fingers and reach them”, “Yes, grandma” I said. That boy has a longer reach than Shaquille O'Neal I muttered as I tried putting the pieces back together.
So off I trundled to the local phone store where a young man, with blazing white teeth – which I’m sure has to be a whole other story, seemed very pleased to help an old codger in the throws of upper middle age. My daughter translated as he spoke in a language I thought could have been related to English. It wasn’t the technical jargon he used that caused the problem but his inability to speak clearly and distinctly. Sorry, my curmudgeon rises again. The selection of phones was very nice, and I was handed a simple unit with a larger screen, push buttons I could get my fat little fingers on and a volume control that actually worked. I was amazed.
I said, “I’ll take it” as I reached for my wallet. I have bought cars, refrigerators and any number of things with that statement. But it doesn’t work in cell phone stores. First of all, my plan, which hasn’t been offered since the early part of the century, would have to be upgraded. Which would mean I’d have to sign a new two-year contract and pay a greater monthly amount. On top of that the phone itself would cost me $59.95. A mark down from almost $200, I was told, if I signed the contract.
I asked my daughter if she had translated correctly.
Mr. Gleem, or was it Pepsodent, smiled brilliantly as we left the store. Where to now my daughter asked. The hardware, I said, maybe super glue would hold longer.

Erick H

Jim Heffernan said...

Thanks everyone!
Your comments here and those on facebook inspired more personal reflections on the topic of cell phones and phones in general so decided to write more on my blog post.

JShip: Voula is after me all the time to get one just for those reasons. I continue to resist.

Firebottle: I resonated to your description of the cell and also to your acronym use... and invented some of my own. (see my next post)

Erick: I think we've shared the "fat finger" issue before and your cell search was really funny.

It's tough, isn't it, to come into the new age of communication? I just have to say a bit more though.. so check my next post on this blog.