It may be the last working phone booth in America someday. I certainly hope so. A block from my home and located in LaSalle Market, the sturdy red communications cubicle lends this eatery and convenience grocery an old timey feel as much as the tin ceiling. It’s the real deal with a bifold glass door that closes easily, an overhead light and fan, a seat, and a telephone that takes coins. It’s a sung place where outside sounds are muffled and a phone conversation can be held in privacy.
Common less than a generation ago, phone booths were typically found in movie theaters, at gas stations, pharmacies, municipal parks, on busy street corners and elsewhere. By the 1980s, booths began giving way to pedestal style public phones because they were easier to maintain and less subject to vandalism. Today, even these are disappearing, victims of ubiquitous cell phones which, depending on coverage, enable individuals to make calls from wherever they find themselves without the effort of reaching into a pocket for coins.
Today we’re more likely to see derelict booths or broken pedestals than working ones. If you ask for a payphone, you’re more likely to get a blank stare than directions. Unaware of a nearby location, good Samaritans are apt to lend you their cell. I’m not sure that either of my two children with a combined age of forty-three years has ever used a coin operated phone.
A lack of payphones is subtly altering our physical landscape, but changes in social geography are probably even more profound, if less noticeable. Chief among these changes is that a phone call in a public place is rarely the private matter it once was when a caller was ensconced in the hushed comfort of a booth. Today, personal conversations are broadcast as if from a bullhorn whether in a café or on the street. And unlike a pedestal phone where a snippet of talk might be overheard, a cell phone user has mobility and can cruise through a crowd as if the surrounding world were deaf.
I suspect there are more insidious and less noticeable changes at work from a lack of phone booths. It’s hard to know. After all, who would have thought that invention of the safety razor would spell the end of daily barbershop camaraderie among a large proportion of men, or that the widespread distribution of bottled beer which can be enjoyed at home would forever alter tavern culture? Often it’s the smallest technical advances that cause the most profound change. Perhaps someday a monument dubbed the world’s largest phone booth will be erected in my hometown as homage to the last of its kind, just as Bryant Pond, Maine has the world’s largest telephone, a fourteen foot hand-crank candlestick model commemorating the final switchboard assisted call in 1983.
I’ll continue to hang out at LaSalle Market and admire the phone booth that more often than not is used by cell phone callers seeking quiet from a crowd munching delicious sandwiches and buzzing with conversation punctuated by laughter. Occasionally I'll sit inside, gently close the door and think of people I used to call from the comfort of such spaces—my grandmother, father, first girlfriends and high school buddies. I’ll keep my eyes open because when this actually does become the last phone booth in America, I’ll be the first to spot Superman hurrying inside for a quick change.
POSTSCRIPT (April 2016): HISTORY CALLING An outdoor phone booth in Prairie Grove, Arkansas has become the first in the country to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the spring 2016 issue of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Installed around 1960 across a rural road from Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, it's a typical of it's era with a sturdy aluminum frame and transparent glass panels. At 25 cents a call, the booth brings in about $4 per year, according to the local phone company. After being struck by a car in 2014, the company considered removing the booth, but local residents expressed their support via social media and the owner relented. The rest is history.