Sunday, November 27, 2011

Relics: Superman's changing room

Once upon a time, all Clark Kent had to do to summon his inner Superman was to pop into the nearest telephone booth, tear off his glasses (not in the careful two-handed way recommended by opticians), and rip open his shirt. (His tailor must have made a mint replacing buttons while wondering who were these women so eager to get to the nerdy reporter's chest.)

Telephone booth? Back up. What's a telephone booth?

Like many things associated with the traditional telephone, the phone booth is almost only a memory. Aside from Clark Kent/Superman, who needs a phone in the relative privacy of a booth when, with our smart phones, we can chat openly about our hemorrhoid surgery or latest squabble with a friend right on the bus or at our restaurant table? Access to the world is in our pockets.

The last time I used a a phone booth or pay phone was in 1999, when I called a cab after my high school reunion. It was in a decaying shopping center across the road from where I used to live, and quite possibly was the only one for miles around. The last pay phone I recall seeing in Chicago was here where I live. It lasted for a few years after I moved in, but has been removed; it wouldn't have been worth it to the phone company. I have seen a pay phone recently; it was at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana, attached to one of the buildings the attendant told us had been built during the Great Depression. I'm sorry now that I didn't take a photo or check out the cost of a call, but it did seem to be in good shape. I wonder how much action it gets from the hunters and the visitors to the sandhill cranes, or if it's even functional.

Mobile communications alone didn't kill the phone booth or pay phone, although they're clearly the primary cause of near extinction. In cities like Chicago, they were already on the endangered list, placed there by the activities of neighborhood drug dealers and other criminal types who used them to conduct business. Community members petitioned the city to have these gang and criminal magnets removed.

For fans of the classic films and TV shows, phone booths and pay phones have long been associated with crime. Calls made from phone booths and pay phones could be threats, demands (often for ransom), warnings, information dumps, or pleas for help. The dangling public phone handset became a poignant, then cliched theme. Now, having said that, I can't think of any examples. I do remember that in Strangers on a Train the Farley Granger character has a fatal conversation with his pregnant, cheating wife on a pay phone.

Other movie characters also flocked to booths and pay phones, including reporters—which could explain Clark Kent's predilection for them. In a film or radio program, when a big story broke frenzied herds of frantic, aggressive reporters would race to the nearest booth or pay phone to call the story in. Having gotten the scoop, the lucky ones who arrived first could gloat over their unlucky brethren, whose continued employment often depended on being able to get through to the newsroom first.

As I remember them, phone booths and pay phones came in a variety of styles, including indoor and outdoor, full sized or half, fully or partially enclosed, or open (for example, a pay phone stuck on a wall, as at Jasper Pulaski). When I was a child, a local pay phone call was a dime; later it went up to a quarter, then 30 cents, then 50 cents or more. For a toll (long-distance) call, you'd put in so much change for so many minutes. Each time you were running out of time, an operator or, later, an automated voice would tell you to deposit more or hang up. If you didn't have more change, you'd find yourself cut off abruptly soon after the warning. Those who use their mobile phones for personal chats could learn some of the succinctness imposed by the pay phone.

A pay phone played an important role in my life. My college dormitory had two pay phones off the lounge. Before I got a phone installed in my room, I spent a lot of time in those booths calling my mother collect and pretending not to be homesick. I imagine phone booths and pay phones have absorbed a lot of very interesting and very mundane conversations and history, just like mobile phones today.

For a look at phone booths and pay phones, and some of the holdovers, check out the Payphone Project, featuring the sometimes creepy photography that abandoned human creations can inspire. The Payphone Projects quotes a recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story:
The American Public Communications Council, a trade group representing about 800 independent pay phone operators, said about 425,000 pay phones remain in the United States today, down from 2.2 million in 2000.
According to Wikipedia, as of June 2011, there were 327,577,529 mobile phones in use in the U.S. alone—more than there were people.

I suppose Clark Kent has long since found an alternative changing room.

Update: Chris Burdick on Facebook:
I thought I was the last non-cell phone person, but a woman just used the pay phone near where I'm sitting. The woman dialed a number, the phone gave off a loud fax machine shriek, and the woman backed away in terror.

1 comment:

  1. In the late ’70s, one of the classroom buildings at my college had a phone booth, dark wood, overhead light, and a shelf-like seat. Talk about luxury. I remember using the phone just for the sake of the booth.