A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

TOUCH: The last four curbside phone booths in Manhattan

I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that the first time I made a call from one of the four remaining enclosed curbside pay-phone booths in New York City, it went to voicemail. Not many people answer their phones anymore—especially if it’s a call from an unknown number. So the next time, I arranged the call in advance.

At the appointed time, I made my way to the most scenic phone booth: on the corner of 90th Street and West End Avenue, outside a stately apartment building and overhung with leafy boughs.

Enclosed curbside phone booths are different from unenclosed ones. There’s something precious about having a defined three-square-foot space to yourself in the city, with glass on all sides so you can see the street but are also protected from it: it confers the rare sense of privacy among the throngs. All four booths are on West End Avenue: at 101st Street, 96th Street, 90th Street, and 66th Street. A program called LinkNYC is gradually converting more than 7,500 street pay phones in New York City into kiosks complete with free Wi-Fi and a keypad for free domestic calls, charging stations, and tablets for Internet browsing. Mostly for reasons of historical preservation, the four Upper West Side booths escaped this fate, though the original cabins were replaced, in February 2016, with four uniform refurbished booths procured from a Canadian warehouse.

The doors on the new booths are actually Plexiglas flaps that require considerable resistance to press through; they don’t accordion-fold like the old ones did. One of the debatable charms of old-school phone booths was their reliable state of disrepair and remnants of prior habitation: dribbling soda cans, graffiti perhaps immortalizing a break-up made in that very booth, sinister smells and lingering traces of perfume, slashed cords and coin slots jammed with bubblegum. These four are relatively pristine, though the doors are prone to coming off their hinges.

Neither the doors nor the walls meet the ground, so there’s not the same degree of selusion their predecessors had. Still, once inside, I had the rare sensation of being in a space entirely my own in the city. The traffic sounds were hushed, I was sheltered from the breeze, and even though it was obvious from the quizzical glances of passers-by that I was far from invisible, I still experienced the illusion of privacy with a fishbowl view of the city. There’s something about the simplicity of the booth that makes you feel safe, like you can do or say or be anything—even, as Clark Kent famously discovered, someone else entirely.

Photo from http://tinyurl.com/jzeqvvo
I was reassured to find that the satisfying tactile sensations and sounds I most remembered about pay phones were the same as ever—and noted how they built anticipation about the call in a way that a cell phone can’t. The coiled tension of the metal cord that always whips around to hit you in the wrist. The springiness of the receiver hook clacking up into place the weight is lifted. The smoothness of the receiver itself (sometimes unsettlingly warm, from the previous user’s hand) nestling against my ear, feeling almost preposterously large and clumsy. And then the major-key sound of the dial tone echoing through the ear piece like an expectant smile: cell phones, after all, have no dial tone. 

Then, the snug rolling of the quarter into the slot (unnecessary, as I later learned: local calls from these phones are free). The notches of the COIN RELEASE knob that fit the fingertips perfectly, and the grinding of gears as I crank it to the right, following the arrow. The wiggly-tooth feeling of the number keys, and the anticipation as you tap-tap-tap the numbers in.

And then . . . the interminable wait while the call is connected, during which you have time to read the text on the phone itself assuring you of its possibilities of reaching the World! (in English) and Tu PaĆ­s! (in Spanish, “your homeland”). 

When the call finally connects, I am told my voice sounds “distant and lonely, smaller and more vulnerable than usual.” The voice on the other end sounds a little scraggly; there is a faint buzzing, crackling sound, almost cozy, like the burr of an LP. As we talk, and as cabs and dog-walkers brush past, I feel a sense of stillness and a twinge of discomfort: I am standing still and talking on a city sidewalk, not moving toward my next destination or ducking umbrellas or dodging strollers or pressing through the throngs. I am doing one thing only: talking to someone. 

We keep expecting our call to be interrupted after three minutes with “Please deposit twenty-five cents for the next three minutes,” but nothing happens. As I later learn, local calls from these pay phones are not only free but indefinite. As I replace the receiver, I hear my quarter plummeting into the PUSH FOR COIN bin, and I press in the little metal flap. Perhaps the previous user hadn’t known about the free calls: I discover not one but two quarters resting inside. But what is that metal bump? A relic of the phone's past? Or a button that, if pressed, might transform me into a new "super" version of myself?