In New York, the Pay Phone Makes a Comeback, However Briefly

Nothing brings back old technology like a black out.

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Carlo Allegri / Reuters

When was the last time you touched a pay phone, or even thought about one at all? If you are living in Manhattan, below 40th Street, the answer is probably very different than if you are living in parts of Brooklyn or, say, the Upper East Side, sections of the city that were relatively unscathed by Sandy and still have power and cell service. As Rebecca Greenfield wrote on Wednesday, cell service remains snarled due to damage to cell towers and cell sites being down, and in downtown Manhattan, service is the worst. Which means that the object of our derision and often disgust, the old stalwart, the pay phone, has a suddenly quite valuable purpose. If the kids can figure out how to use it. 

As Ben Cohen writes in The Wall Street Journal, youths as young as 24—Alison Caporimo, an East Village resident—use smartphones and computers quite deftly, and yet, when faced with a pay phone, have had to relearn (or learn for the first time) some techniques of yore. Waiting in line to make a call from a pay phone, for instance—who's done that in the last 50 years? And then there's the skill of fitting coins (who has coins?) into little slots. 

"I lost a lot of coins," confesses Ms. Caporimo, who didn't even know how to work a pay phone before Tuesday.

Like anything one decides one is suddenly interested in that's previously just been a camouflaged part of the urban landscape, Caporimo noted that once you look for a pay phone, "You miraculously get resourceful and start seeing them everywhere." (There are some 12,000 of them still in New York City; while some lost service in the power outage, others "don't require commercial power.") And everywhere, at least right now, below that key point in Manhattan where power ends and the darkness begins, people are using them, writes Cohen: "Not since the birth of the iPhone has the pay phone experienced such demand, thanks to Sandy."

Like the old landline, good in times of trouble (not if it's portable and demands electricity, though), so is the old-fashioned smelly, germy pay phone. As long as someone doesn't come along and overload them with coins. So we're in a sudden, brief pay phone boom, Cohen explains: 

"Phones that normally do two dollars a day are taking in $50 a day," says Peter Izzo of Van Wagner Communications, one of 13 local pay-phone-operating franchises. "In times of distress, the people of the city love them."

As many as 300 or 400 calls a day from pay phones may be being made—a number that might be more if we could actually remember the numbers of the people we like to call and didn't have to carry them around on index cards. Smartphones have made everything so easy ... until they're no longer there for us.  

But weeks from now, when we're all back to our sort of normal lives (power is set to be back this weekend!) and you're passing by a pay phone in well-lit downtown Manhattan on your way to your favorite whatever-it-is, chatting away on your trusty iPhone, remember this. For an object so generally mocked, hated, or ignored, maybe those "pee-vestibules" are maybe kind of good to keep around, you know, in a pinch. Just have Purell handy, too.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire.

Top image: Carlo Allegri / Reuters.

 

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