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Jewish World Review July 31, 2001 / 11 Menachem-Av, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

You can't drop a coin
when there's no slot -- IT'S somehow fitting that the recent alleged scam at the Cook County Jail involved a pay phone.

Inmates are accused of posing as police officers as they placed calls from the pay phone and conned elderly victims out of thousands of dollars.

A pay phone in jail -- it makes sense, the way things have been going for pay phones. While we weren't paying attention, pay phones have gone from being as American as the corner soda shop to something either shady and disreputable, or outmoded and unwanted.

It started several years back, when residents of some neighborhoods asked that pay phones be removed, because drug dealers and prostitutes were using them as outdoor offices.

Who knew? For many of us, pay phones were always as democratic as the American flag -- anyone could use them, as long as the caller had a nickel (to be succeeded by a dime, then 15 cents, then 20 cents, then a quarter, now 50 cents. . . .)

And now, in many states, pay phones are slipping away fast -- not because they are used by criminals, but because so many people, from businessmen to schoolchildren, carry cell phones. Phone companies are deciding it's not worth the expense to service pay phones -- pay phones are not earning their keep.

This is an odd notion. A pay phone would seem to be a money machine -- like a piggy bank the public fills up, and the phone's owner empties. How can you lose money on such a thing? You put it up there, people put their coins into the slot, and you take the money out. This isn't profitable?

Evidently not. Earlier this year, BellSouth, the local phone company for most of the Southeastern U.S., announced that it plans to pull all of its 143,000 pay phones -- all of them -- out of service by the end of 2002. A BellSouth spokesman explained: "People are making new choices. We've obviously recognized that pay phones are not part of that."

Nationally, according to phone industry figures, nearly a quarter of all pay phones were eliminated in the four years between 1996 and 2000. There are still believed to be slightly more than 2 million pay phones in the U.S., but all expectations are for that number to keep shrinking. As business journalist Steve Alexander put it: "When future archaeologists dig up our civilization, they may be confused by an icon of the 20th Century: the stationary, wired-connected pay phone. Like the typewriter before it, the pay phone is rapidly becoming a relic."

A strong case can be made that, as pay phones disappear, the people really feeling the hardship will be those who have depended on them not as a convenience, but as a necessity -- low-income Americans who can't afford to have telephone service in their homes, and have always used nearby pay phones as their link with the world outside their own neighborhoods.

But even when you put that aside for a moment -- not that you should -- something about the texture of American life will change when the pay phones finally do become impossible to find. There was something . . .

Well, "public" is the word that applies. There was something public about pay phones. That's what they were officially called: public phones.

In a nation that outwardly embraces egalitarianism, the concept of "public" is quietly being done away with in many areas of American life. Public means open to anyone; public means no gates, no membership criteria. Everyone's welcome.

It was the founding credo of the republic. Yet, in our nervous age, there seems to be a willingness to endorse the concept of public, but to do away with the carrying out of it. There is nothing more public than a pay phone -- and nothing more private than a cell phone in your pocket. The symbolism has as much to do with territorialism as with civic policy -- we seem to want to control who has access to everything around us.

This is probably getting too ethereal -- we're just talking about pay phones going away. But they are vanishing. If they once were like a friendly wagging of the finger saying "Come on over," their absence is like a blank stare. Like a wall on a city street avoiding eye contact with you as you walk by.

Keep moving, their absence says. There's no reason for you to pause here.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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