Requiem For A Pay Phone


Up in Madison recently, was pumping some gas when I spotted an iconic creature what’s on the critically endangered list- a pay phone. Nostalgia rained down. Also there was the serious temptation to stick my hand in the change slot, risking “spit fingers”…

We all know the cellular telephone murderd the pay phone. Bludgeoned it slowly and took all the romance that went with it. For a pay phone was like an oasis: when you were “out there”, away from the nest, it was something to track down, sometimes desperately so- quell the dire need to convey or confess or connect.

As I rolled down East Washington Ave. I pondered pay phone reminiscenses. Them years spent digging ditches when sometimes, during the lunch hour, a feller needs to locate a phone to deal with some all-consuming issue that just could not wait. (This also led to many gas station lunches…Mmmm…giant slim…) Back on the job site, shovel handle in hand, you could go about your mindless work unencumbered by the morning’s tortuous ruminations.

Those nights on the interstate- heading back from a gig or whatnot- when you’d seemingly picked up a hitch-hiker named loneliness and his pal hopelessness, and a rest area pay phone was the only salve. To hear some certain voice…

All them times spent in a Northwoods cabin, where being phoneless was part of the allure. You’d drag along your can of change (long distance calls ate alot of coins) in case you felt the need to make the 5 mile phone run. And it was an actual phone BOOTH, off a little road at the edge of the woods, at times surrounded by a throbbing cloud of mosquitoes & flies. It was a trip to hunker down in there during a downpour. Or sit in your car waiting ’cause someone else had got there first. You’d hear their muffled voice through the glass and wonder if they had a crisis or just missed someone too.

And remember- it was equally rewarding for the recipient of these random road calls, even if the conversation weren’t always easy. ‘Cause it aint nothin’ to call someone on your cell phone- getting to a pay phone took effort and even desire. No gratuitous calls made.

As shiftless young teens we hung out in a park on the Fox River. Smoking cigarettes, killing time. It’s when I really applied myself to the killing of time- was a devout student. Like a seasoned assassin I could murder it in all manner of ways. Next to the concession stand -where we scored Drumsticks & Chuckles- was a pay phone. OUR pay phone. It was like our office phone. Friends would call it to see if we were there, killing time. Ever walked by a pay phone that was ringing? Did you answer? Sadly, one drunken night James burned down our office phone. Damnit, James.

During that same era our pal Wedge (R.I.P.) devised a brilliant system. See, most of us lived around town and could walk or bike to our various haunts, but his family lived north of town in one of them new subdivisions. So he compiled a network of pay phones for when he needed a lift home. Now, Wedge was forever short on dimes, as we all were (cigarettes & Chuckles weren’t free), so he’d call home collect. He worked out codes with his mom- “collect from Ed” meant he was at the park, “collect from Tom” the library, “collect from Kurt” the EZ-Go gas station, etc. His ma -God love her- would refuse the charges and go get him.

But now, just as email has killed the letter, (and the post office), cell phones have killed the pay phone. I’ve a friend who was engaged and her fiance broke it off with her via text. Which she recieved while standing in line at a wake, no lie. (Asshole).

Last time i used a pay phone was a few years back. We were working in Addison, west of Chicago. We’d parked the work truck in a gas station and there it was- grimy, neglected, proud. Beckoning. I had a (rarely used) cell phone and no particular reason to call anyone. But one never knows when it’ll be his last pay phone call. And I had change. I wiped off that receiver real good with my shirt and rang a friend- revelling in that long lost metallic sound of them coins dropping in that old rusty box. She answered tentatively as she didn’t recognize the number and assumed it a bill collector. We caught up breifly over the traffic noise.

The other day I saw the news- our former governor was headed to prison. They said inmates could talk on the phone for 10 minutes a day. Was a phone on the wall and frequently there was a line. Lucky bastards.