The last of the pay phones in NYC
Hard to imagine standing at a pay phone and looking through another obsolete item, a phone book, to find the number of a friend or family member pumping dimes in the coin slot. But if you are in your mid 40’s and older this was life before cell phones.
New York City removed the last two pay phones on Monday, May 23rd. The Times Square telephones were the last of nearly 8,000 public phones that were still ringing around the city as of March 2015, according to the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.
The city had been gradually removing them from sidewalks and replacing them with wifi hotspots and LinkNYC cellphone charging kiosks.
Saving Dimes Spending too much time on the telephone…Jon Bon Jovi Song; “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”.
This brings me back to a similar article I read in the early 1990’s when New York City removed the last of the Automat machines which was a staple in the 50’s and 60’s. This was something before my time but had that similar nostalgia for people of my parents age and older. April of 1991 to be exact.
Automats began in Philadelphia; two luncheonette owners — Mr. Horn and Frank Hardart — opened the first one there in 1902. But over time Automats became a New York institution, with their own only-in-New-York mythology.
There is one pay phone not too far from my home. The dinosaur sits idol barely hanging on to life on the side of a dance studio called Perna Dance Center. I am not sure I have ever seen anyone standing there making any calls to anyone? However, it still sits there waiting for that one last person.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW
Like everything else, what goes out of style comes back in style. Take vinyl records for instance. In the 1970’s vinyl records peaked at their production heights and accounted for 66% of all music formats. This was before any downloading capabilities. Then the CD world took over offering a “cleaner” sound and smaller more compact unit easy to store larger quantities especially for DJ’s. Revenues fell from $2.5 Billion to just $10 million killing the production of the scratchable disc to non-existence.
In recent years vinyl has made a comeback and for the first time since 1986, (2021) the production of vinyl outranked CD’s due to a new interest from hipsters under 35 years old. Now the consumer wants the scratchy sound and loves the turntable effect of yesterday.
STICKY PHONE RECEIVERS
Long before the Covid-19 pandemic germs were never a thought when I was growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s. You took a drag from someone else’s cigarette, you took sips out each others coffee cup or soda can (regardless if you were related to them or not) and you kissed all your relatives and close friends (especially Italians) “hello”. Sometimes on the lips if your Aunt missed your cheek (Yikes). And of course, you double-dipped your potato chips into onion dip at everyone’s party. Life was that carefree. Then there was the pay phone hand receiver for when you needed to make that call home. Always sticky and always having residue of bubble gum somewhere you never gave germs a thought. In fact you held that receiver close to your mouth having your lips touch and probably moments after someone sneezed into it. Sure you probably got a stomach virus here and there but you never gave it a thought. Today, if you are not wearing a mask you are not touching anything foreign without a glove or napkin. For this reason the probability of pay phones making a comeback for nostalgic reasons is slim. The practicality doesn’t make sense and the germ-factor is too strong for anytone to want to take chances of catching anything.
ART Imitates LIFE
There is a need for collectors to buy and display pay-phones in their home but not to make actual calls. Ebay is rife with sellers of these novelty booth’s to place in a basement or hallway of your home or office. I am sure that owners lysol the handset daily because everyone immediately grabs the receiver to pretend they are making a call. Especially kids. This is a practice that was never done even on those rotary dial phones (push-button came later).
OPERATOR-IT’S AN EMERGENCY!
With the phase-out of pay-phones came the extinction of calling the operator or having the operator cut-into your conversation to have you add more change. Anyone in their 20’s have no idea what I am talking about. For those of you old like me remember;
“The Emergency Breakthrough”?
The endless busy signal trying to call your friend could be maddening and caused drastic measures. Calling the operator (hitting “0”)to break through on your friends conversation because you just had to talk to them! Originally designed for actual emergencies, the emergency break-through was abused by all teenagers of that time. Some operators would get used to the voice that was calling and would refuse to break through knowing it wasn’t an emergency. The Operator had the power and they used it!
Monopolized by one company for seven decades, Bell delivered the world’s most advanced, reliable, ubiquitous telecom network in the world, spitting out ample profits. Problem was, it was the exact same phone service for most of those seven decades until the waning years of Ma Bell’s monopoly in 1984. Which means they could charge whatever they wanted without a fight because you had no other choice. The demolition of the monopoly lead to our history’s most impressive dash of innovation (smart phones) and price comparison shopping. In fact, before the break-up, imagine that it was illegal to connect with anything but Western Electric equipment to the network at the time and could land you in jail.
WHAT NUMBER ARE YOU TRYING TO REACH?
No internet and therefore no “google” so you needed the operator to find a telephone number for you. I can’t think of anyone (even my age) who uses the operator for anything other than a true emergency if “911” is not possible. Forget about the actual yellow pages. For some reason, I still get a compact version of the phone book still thrown on my front lawn each year. Usually goes right into the garbage. So as the last of the pay phones have left New York City those of us who remember using them will always have that memory and are probably happy it is just that, a memory.