Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
“You don’t want to use us anymore? Fine. But do you even see us anymore?”
“We used to run this town.”
Once ubiquitous in bustling metropolises like New York City, payphones have been cast aside as relics of a tethered time. In the rare instances that we walk past one, we don’t even bat an eye. We barely look up from the sleeker, shinier devices that made them obsolete.
And, well, payphones have something to say about that. “You don’t want to use us anymore? Fine. But do you even see us anymore?”
That comes from “Dead Ringer,” a four-minute film by directors Alex Kliment, Dana O'Keefe, and Michael Tucker that premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and was featured online Tuesday by the New Yorker. Against the backdrop of a somber, jazzy tune, one of New York City’s four remaining phone booths narrates its disdain for how invisible payphones have become, despite everything they’ve done for society.
“Without us, Clark Kent is—he’s just Clark Kent,” it reminds us in a thick Brooklyn accent. The anger and hurt in its voice intensify as the video continues. “When that Hurricane Sandy came, and your apartment was flooded, and your batteries was dead, and your gizmo glitched out, who’d you come running to?”
But Kliment says the film isn’t so much about lamenting the disappearance of curbside payphones. After all, technology changes. “It was more about trying to give life to what the change means,” he tells CityLab. “[What] mattered more to us was how the change in technology that led to the decline of the payphone has fundamentally changed how people relate to each other.”
At one point in the film, the phone booth berates its successors, the smartphones. “We were a symbol of something: The last chance of any privacy in these streets,” the narrator says. “People used to want that, you know. … But nowadays, privacy, not on those little gizmos. Those things, they got into your brains, they’ve eaten away your conversations, infected your relationships, they’ve stolen your daydreams.”
If it’s any consolation to the phone booth, payphones are not forgotten. In fact, in some places, they’re still in demand, particularly among immigrant-rich neighborhoods. And while New York City is in the midst of replacing the 10,000 payphones with swanky wi-fi kiosks, projects abound to keep them relevant. In 2012, for example, payphones lived a second life as guerrilla libraries. And just last year, the city’s public radio station turned an old payphone into a tool for people to share their thoughts.
But this all comes too late. Kliment, who grew up just 10 blocks from the phone booth in the video, says that shortly after they finished filming, the city tore it up. But not before it bid us a final farewell: “So long, we’ll be waiting for your call.”