The pay phone lives in New London.
Three times a week, I visit the New London Police Department to pick up the arrest logs. There are two ways to enter or exit the department’s lobby, and in each case you have to go through a small, separate room between the lobby and the sidewalk. One room is a narrow, glass-walled area containing little more than a plaque commemorating those involved in the building’s construction. The other has a soda machine and, incredibly, a pay phone.
I actually did a double take when I first noticed it. Yes, it was just as I remembered them. The little blue and white volume button in the upper corner. Numerous instructions on costs and how to use a phone card, that other anachronistic bit of telephonic technology. The slot at the bottom to retrieve any refunded coins. The advertising space taken up by, what else, a bail bondsman. The black receiver tethered to the bulky chrome body. All of it nestled within a wooden holder with the universal phone symbol, a cubbyhole holding the Yellow Pages.
My first thought was that this had to be a nonfunctional holdover. But no, the phone directory was current. And picking up the receiver, I heard the reassuring purr of a dial tone.
The demise of the pay phone happened incredibly quickly. One of the focal points in The Matrix, released in 1999, is that the characters can escape from a computer-generated world through certain phones; naturally, pay phones are especially helpful. When the sequel came out four years later, it had already been a year since the movie Phone Booth opened with a commentary on just how rare pay phones and phone booths had become in New York City.
I don’t really get nostalgic for pay phones. I probably used them from time to time when I was younger, getting in touch with my parents to ask them to come pick me up or otherwise making use of one for some pressing concern. I didn’t get a cell phone until I was 21, after years of relying on phone cards or a family collect call number. And while always having access to a phone sometimes has its downsides—please don’t call me for work matters if it’s the weekend—cell phones have no doubt saved countless lives by providing a ready link to help.
The pay phone still evoked a little nostalgia, though. It probably has to do with the fact that they’re one of those things that stage a more public disappearance. If you want to get rid of your VCR, you trade it in at a thrift store or throw it in the garbage. But the pay phones or phone booths always leave behind an empty shell or perhaps a section of wall with a tangle of wires protruding from a hole, itself soon spackled over.
Will I ever use this phone? Probably not. But if worst comes to worst and I lose my cell phone or it runs out of batteries, I’ll be glad that it’s there.
As long as I can remember the number of the person I plan to call.