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Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Hung Up on Pay Phones


By Richard Carreno Bio
Junto Staff Writer
Whither the public pay phone? You know, those germ-spreading, coin-sucking, hardly-ever-working telephones that used to dot city street corners, hotel lobbies, and other urban public spaces.

Remember? We used to sidle up -- sometimes, even wait in line -- to use the phones, stuck in alummnium-sided cubbies, often in rows of up to four. If we were lucky, we might even find a dime or two in the coin-return slot.

The pay phone's death-knell, of course, was the cell phone. No longer anchored to a land-line site, the mobile pulled the plug the corner dinosaurs. Good riddance.

Sure. The cell phone has been attacked as being a cancer causer, social divider, and a public nuisance. Some of that is surely be true, as least the nuisance bit. Thankfully, new etiquette rules are getting more and more people to shut off their cells when others are around. Or, simply, shut up.  

Until just a few years ago, public phones will still around, albeit even then their days were numbered. Often vandalized and graffitti-ridden, and faced with the increasing use of mobiles, Ma Bell and her successors around the country just hung up on the pay phone.

And on phone booths. That part, the demise of the iconic booths, or 'boxes,' as they call them in England, has had its down side. The original green Bell booths in the United States and the red K6 phone boxes in the UK created almost sound proofed-environments that allowed for private -- and non-distracting -- conversation. Besides, where else could Superman change from reporter Clark Kent into the caped Man of Steel? Or for lesser mortals, a place to quickly dash to get out of the rain?

But as public phones became less used, the booths themselves became an eye-sore. On many street corners, they became trash bins. In central London, where phone boxes still are common (tourists love their romantic pre-War sensibility), they've become wall-papered with call-girl ads. They even had to pass an ordinance to ban the ads. To no avail, of course.

In the end, the red phone boxes, like the red Royal Mail cylindrical mail boxes, and, well, even the Monarchy itself, has become a totem of a past British life. And an artifact. One box, an early K2 model in the London Zoo, has even been made a 'listed building,' something akin to being recognized on the National Register Historic Buildings.

For Ma Bell, Verizon, and Sprint, hanging up on the pay phone was, simply, wise economics. For me, it was a health issue.

Of course, back in the day, who knew? There was a time even when Americans didn't even wear auto seat-belts. About the same time when Americans were using rotary dialed phones.

Today, with a raised consciousness to sanitary requirements, what in the wake of the H1N1 invasion and the like, any contact with a public phone mouthpiece makes as much sense as kissing a toilet. Forget the hand sanitizer.