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Who’s calling?
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Who’s calling?

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Bill Perkins

There’s a periodical I sometimes look through when I see it on a magazine rack in a book store. It’s called 2600, The Hacker Quarterly. It’s filled with technical articles that make no sense to me, but I am interested in the photographs of telephone booths from around the world. It’s an odd thing to include in a magazine, but it’s the reason I pick it up. You just don’t see pay phones anymore.

A Facebook friend of mine posted a photograph of her ringing telephone the other day, puzzled because the screen read: “PAYPHONE” and listed the number. It’s an anomaly, and one of her followers remarked that the phone should have been at a particular location in New York City, but was no longer there. That led me down a rabbit hole of a web site about pay phones, and something called Payphone Radio, that’s an endless series of conversations recorded from pay phones all over Manhattan. Periodically you’ll hear subway sounds, or a pre-recorded operator’s voice: “Please deposit 25 cents for the next three minutes.”

The voices sound the same, apparently altered to sound like Friday from Dragnet. There’s no context, and you only hear one side of the conversation, so it seems less conversation than confessional. I find it mesmerizing.

“…it was an upscale place in Tampa, and was written up on a society page, as much as there was a society in Tampa … it probably would have launched a career for me in cocktail piano, I was sitting there the night before the gig, and I got a call that the gig was happening right then, where the hell was I …”

I’ve always had a fascination with pay phones. Of course, they were helpful if you needed your mom to pick you up from the rec center after a day of swimming. But if you were inclined to mischief, they offered infinite possibilities.

I was thrilled when I discovered that the pay phones that lined the main floor of Northside Mall had consecutive phone numbers. One day I walked leisurely from one to the next and noted how much time elapsed as I walked from one of the stone structures to the next. When I’d get bored, I’d call the first payphone near Woolco. If someone answered, I’d ask for Walter. When they hung up, I would wait the allotted time, and then call the next one. The same person would always pick up the second time, and I’d ask for Walter. There was a certain thrill in exasperating adults anonymously. Occasionally, I’d get them a third time, and I’d ask for Walter.

Only once did I get an answer at the fourth call. “HELLO,” the aggravated man said brusquely. “This is Walter,” I said. “Do I have any calls?”

Kids today will never experience such shenanigans. Telecommunication is not as easily anonymous, as most phones will show a caller’s number, name, or both. And good luck finding a payphone to call.

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“I’m at Rockefeller Center and there’s a yellow slip in my box that I have an item that’s too big for the box. I’ve been here about three weeks, and I remember the elderly guy I used to see milling around Rockefeller center or Bryant Park. He was in a nice suit, not a three-thousand dollar Brooks Brothers, but a nice suit. He was a fixture. At some point it hit me that he was standing around with nothing to do. But he always looked purposeful. On the paper was scrawled gibberish. I only got a two or three second glance at it. Another time I saw him talking on a payphone on 50th Street, and I got a picture of him doing that. When he walked off, I went and picked up the receiver, and there was no dial tone. It’s starting to feel like that’s exactly what I’m doing today … I’m not ready to give up my connection to Rockefeller Center, so I just paid for another year…”

No matter how interesting Payphone Radio with its monotone confessionals might be, there’s no geek thrill like the Mojave phone booth.

There’s something inherently desperate about payphones in general and telephone booths in particular. However, a telephone booth standing alone in the desert, miles from civilization, would be a magnet for aficionados of oddities and curiosities.

Pacific Bell installed the telephone booth at the intersection of two dirt roads in 1948 at the request of the owners of a nearby cinder mine, and unless you were a telephone lineman or a miner, you’d have no reason to know it was there. A California man, Doc Daniels, stumbled across a mention of it in an underground ‘zine in the late ‘90s, and his interest was piqued. He phoned the number time and again with no success, and one day the line was busy. So he kept calling until it rang, and a woman answered it. She worked at the cinder mine, and had stopped to make a call. Yes, she confirmed, there really was a payphone in the middle of nowhere. The original phone was a hand-crank model, but the phone booth had been maintained and upgraded by the phone company, and was then a push-button model.

Daniels wrote about it on the emerging Wide World Web, and soon visitors were flocking to the booth from near and far. There were articles written about it, an NPR story, even a feature film with Steve Guttenberg. Then one day in May 2000, it was gone.

It’s little more than legend now. One can find its former location, now part of the Mojave National Preserve, on Google Maps, but nothing physical remains. A marker placed by fans was removed by the National Park Service.

But if you’re interested, the number — 760-733-9969 — is still active. It’s been converted to a conference call number, giving curiosity seekers an opportunity to stumble into random conversations with others intrigued by the Mojave telephone booth.

Tell them Walter sent you.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of The Dothan Eagle. E-mail: bperkins@dothaneagle.com.

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