By Jim Heffernan
Here’s an old limerick:
There was an old maid from Duluth,
Who wept when she thought of her youth,
Remembering the chances
She had at school dances,
And once in a telephone booth.
Telephone booth? Telephone booths today are as rare as referring to women who choose not to marry as old maids.
Last week the New York Times reported that only four outdoor telephone booths remain in Manhattan, concentrated on the upper West Side. A technology company maintains them, apparently because residents of the neighborhood like them and because they are the last ones.
I don’t suppose most in the Millennial Generation have ever seen one or that Generation Xers have ever used one, having seen them only in old Superman movies showing the Man of Steel transforming from suit-clad Clark Kent into the caped crusader in telephone booths. How handy that was.
Let me say for the record, though, that even in Duluth, telephone booths were once more ubiquitous than old maids. You could find them all over the place in the downtown, and in outlying areas as well. Before cell phones, pay phones, most often found in aluminum booths, were the only way to call someone when away from home.
Because the phone in my family home was located right next to the living room, where others could easily overhear, I used to make some personal calls from telephone booths, often to make dates with young maids. It cost a dime then.
Leave it to New York City to be the last bastion of the telephone booth in America. At one time, there was one on every block, at least in Midtown. But good luck trying to use one.
Once, years ago, when I was in New York for an extended period, I got word of the death of a relative, and wanted to call home to learn more about it. Roving around Midtown, I went to a nearby phone booth only to find it had been vandalized – probably robbed – and didn’t work. No problem, there was another booth a block up the avenue. Oops, same thing. Receiver torn from its wire too. Well, there was another booth nearby, a ways up the street. Unfortunately, same thing. I couldn’t find a functioning phone in a half dozen booths, and finally gave up.
So now New York is down to four and Duluth has none that I know of. I don’t carry a cell phone and recently I looked for an indoor pay phone at Miller Hill Mall here. There used to be a couple in the main corridor. Gone.
Fortunately I ran into a woman I know who carried a cell phone she let me use. She’s a widow now, but has no reason to weep when she thinks of her youth, having had plenty of chances at school dances, but probably never in a telephone booth.