Beyond their basic utility, they've inspired countless artists. Now mobile technology has made them obsolete
IN THE SUMMER OF 1999, the Holy Spirit directed Rick Karr, a 51-year-old Texan, to answer the calls made to a phone booth located in the middle of the Mojave Desert, 15 miles from a highway. He spent 32 days camping beside the phone booth on the desert playa in scorching heat. During that time he answered over 500 calls, many of which came from someone named Sergeant Zeno, who said he was phoning from the Pentagon.
What was there was only a ghost of what had been there, a phone booth installed in the 1960s for volcanic cinder miners and the few other domestic residents of the area. By the time Rick Karr arrived, the glass casing had been shattered, and what remained of the interior was lined with candles, license plates, rosaries, and other votives.
Karr was only one in a long line of pilgrims to the Mojave Phone Booth. A Los Angeles resident was incited to visit by seeing a telephone icon on a map of the Mojave, and it was his description of the trip published in an underground zine that catalyzed Godfrey Daniels, a computer programmer and entrepreneur, to build a website devoted to the phone booth. That the internet made the Mojave Phone Booth famous is, of course, ironic: the very technology that had rendered the phone booth obsolete acting as the agent of its resurgence.
Between 1997 and 2000, when Pacific Bell retired the number at the request of the Mojave Forest Service, the phone received thousands of calls, dozens each day. When asked why they called, most of the callers’ answers could be distilled to this: “Because there was a chance someone would pick up.”
The first American phone booth was patented by William Gray in 1889 for a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. It replaced real people who would sit in a quiet area of a public space beside a telephone and collect money from people who wanted to use it. The first phone booths, like the first movie theaters, were acutely beautiful examples of craftsmanship. A phone booth was not just a convenient place to have a conversation — it was a significant place.
By 1904 there were over 3 million phones and 81,000 phone booths across America. By 1946, only half of American homes contained phones; consequently, pay phones were nexus points for communities. For traveling salesmen and other insolvent entrepreneurs, telephone booths in the lobbies of public buildings were the only affordable places to do business. For these itinerant people, described by A. J. Liebling as the “Telephone Booth Indians,” the phone booth was of material and emotional relevance, providing “sustenance as well as shelter, as the buffalo did for the Arapahoe and Sioux.”
Phone booths helped facilitate a growing belief among urban Americans that privacy was both necessary and desirable. They carved out a private space in the public sphere, allowing us to do for the first time what most of us unwittingly now do every day when we speak absorbedly into our personal devices or simply into the air, behavior that we once characterized as insane. Yet almost as soon as they were constructed, phone booths began to be deconstructed. In the 1950s the wood was exchanged for glass, and the booth itself, in many cases, was replaced by a kiosk that set the phone apart but left the caller exposed, and in some ways more vulnerable, to the world.
Phone booths and kiosks have been quietly disappearing for the past 25 years, ever since the advent of the cellular phone in 1973. Most of those that remain stand as symbols of other eras, overrun with graffiti, sticky with secretions. Others have been resurrected, repurposed by needs as much spiritual and aesthetic as practical. In Japan and France phone booths have been transformed into aquariums; in New York they have been made into lending libraries and art galleries. In Leverick Bay some phone booths are now showers, and in Finland a few have been remodeled into bathrooms. Many have been transformed into free WiFi hotspots. In Santa Cruz a former phone booth is now a fountain, and in Vancouver some have been converted into homeless shelters of one — first come, first served.
In every city there are rumors of phone booth graveyards, unhallowed spaces in which decommissioned phones are put to rest, but no one ever seems to know where they are or whether they actually exist.
In 1977 my parents clear-cut a road through a deciduous forest in the middle of New Hampshire so that phone lines could be strung. They were too poor to hire someone else to do the work; my father wielded a chainsaw and my mother an axe. Before the lines were put in they were reliant on the pay phone in front of the general store a few miles away from their house — a phone that still functions, out of necessity, because that part of the world is still a dead zone for cellular service. Just as post offices are being phased out of all but the most densely populated areas, so too are rural phone booths. There’s no money for them. And yet, as my parents could tell you, they perform a service that is more than nostalgic.
Even in urban areas phone booths are still of practical use, although only by the “poorest of the poor.” Except, of course, in times of disaster. After Hurricane Sandy, not only did much of New York go dark, so too did cellular networks. Surprisingly, the city’s few remaining pay phones still worked. A tweet to The Daily Beast reported a long line to use the pay phone on St. Marks Place, beside which a homeless entrepreneur was charging “two dollars for a dollar in change.” In the wake of the hurricane New York went forward with a plan to transform the remaining pay phones into smart touch screens that will provide information about the city and emergency services, generating revenue from advertisements rather than coins.
As phone companies systematically remove pay phones, Amish and Mennonite communities have been building, or rebuilding, their own. In 2006 The Washington Post reported on the erection of 12 phone booths (made of recycled materials like oil tanks) in remote areas of a Mennonite settlement in southern Maryland. Now these religious followers can use the phones to communicate about important business or personal matters, but also adhere to the sanctions that prohibit the individual ownership of technology such as radios, televisions, automobiles, and telephones. Referred to as “phone shanties” and hidden in the woods, behind barns and chicken coops, these “community phones” are intended to isolate contact with the external world and lessen the potential for such contact to divert people’s attention from faith, family, and community.
This revision of an obsolete technology underscores its symbolic value. The Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade has suggested that structures erected in defense of cities — moats, labyrinths, and ramparts — most likely originated as defenses against “demons” rather than armies. In much the same way, the phone booth suggested the need for safeguards against threats less articulable than noise and weather. In its effort to protect, however, the phone booth simultaneously revealed the individual to herself and to the world.
Phone booths are public spaces, but they can tell us a lot about personal isolation. In Haruki Murakami’s novel Sputnik Sweetheart, the main character, Sumire, repeatedly calls her friend, referred to only as “K,” just before dawn from a phone near a park a couple of hundred yards from her apartment. The phone booth is recurrently described as average, the moon above it as “orphaned” and “pitiful,” but it is the place in which Sumire feels comfortable sharing her most disturbing questions and thoughts.
The phone calls in Sputnik Sweetheart seem like they should add up to something but they don’t, not in the way you expect. K is steadfastly loyal and in love with Sumire, but Sumire falls in love with someone else, another woman named Miu. In her effort to refashion herself into someone she thinks Miu could love, Sumire’s grip on reality loosens. As her sense of self dissolves, a dissolution that causes her to feel lonely and alienated — a satellite wandering through the “unimpeded darkness” of space — the phone calls increase until Sumire mysteriously disappears.
When she returns, just as mysteriously, she calls K from her phone booth, an “interchangeable, totally semiotic telephone box.” For someone who proves to be as amorphous as Sumire, whose former self “vanishes like smoke,” the sameness of the phone booth is both comforting and frustrating, a symbol of gravity and the desire to escape its laws. For K it is a chance to be connected to reality “on the same line” with Sumire. After the phone call abruptly cuts out, however, his phone does not ring again.
When Reggie Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) in the film Charade is besieged by numerous men trying to collect on the money they think her dead husband has stolen from them, she takes refuge in a phone booth. As an acquaintance of mine points out, people in the movies always hide in phone booths and phone booths are the very last places they should go. When one of her pursuers forces his way into the booth and drops successive lit matches on her dress, Regina cowers lower and lower, hurriedly brushing off the flames. What was meant to be a haven is now the perfect place to burn. A few minutes later Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) makes a belated entrance and asks her what she is doing in there, to which she responds, “I am having a nervous breakdown.”
Phone booths are good places for nervous breakdowns. Charade was released in 1963, the same year as Hitchcock’s The Birds. When the deadly birds resume their attack on Bodega Bay, Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, leaves the diner from which she had been watching the maelstrom and runs outside to a phone booth. From a viewer’s perspective her decision is inexplicable — there is a working phone in the diner — but the scholar David Trotter explicates Hitchcock’s choice quite succinctly in an essay entitled “The Person in the Phone Booth” that appeared in the London Review of Books: “What he gets from Melanie’s mistake is an image of isolation and exposure, as she twists and turns in torment in her transparent cubicle, and the glass shatters.” What drives Melanie into the telephone booth, and what cannot get her out, presents a more acute threat than the birds outside.
The idea of the phone booth as a perfect container for and representation of the unconscious, as Trotter points out in the same essay, is made explicit in Joel Schumacher’s 2002 film Phone Booth. In a glass phone booth on 53rd and 8th, “the last vestige of privacy in Manhattan’s west side,” which is scheduled to be replaced by a kiosk the next day, a philandering publicist (Colin Farrell) is held captive by a sniper’s rifle until he is able to admit his transgressions. A boy from the Bronx intent on recreating himself, he manipulates everyone trusting enough to believe him, falsely promising to turn people into gods in order to shore up his own uncertain identity. His punishment is to act out the scene of confession publicly, at the point of a gun.
In some ways, there is little distinction between calling a phone booth in the middle of the desert that may or may not be occupied by someone who could (or would) answer and addressing an equally hypothetical god in praise or supplication. Both involve a leap of faith, however seriously or insouciantly that leap is made, and both are predicated on a future that has not been circumscribed by the limitations of the present. Alexander Graham Bell himself chose to demonstrate how the telephone worked in churches between sermons and hymn singing. One could say, of course, that the presence or absence of belief distinguishes these acts, but in this instance the phone booth itself had become an object of devotion, a reliquary of isolation and the need for connection.
During the winter and spring of 1999, a few months before Rick Karr made his pilgrimage, I would only talk to people from a specific phone booth in New Haven, Connecticut. The booth was on the corner of Elm Street and College Street, adjacent to the city green; it was a glass box roughly the size of a confessional, with a half-eaten directory dangling on a chain from the shelf beneath the telephone. My last semester of university consisted of a slow oscillation between working on my thesis and talking on that phone.
In the traditional Sacrament of Penance, penitents confess their sins to a priest, who is invisible behind a screen, in order to obtain absolution. The anonymity was often superficial — communities were intimate and a priest would know not only the confessor, but also everyone intimate to the confessor — but it was still considered essential. Many contemporary churches, in the effort to modernize and shore up waning numbers, have made the anonymous aspect of confession optional. Now many congregants confess their sins face-to-face with their priest, increasingly blurring the line between religion and therapy.
That phone booth in New Haven preserved the anonymity of my confessions, even when I was speaking to the people who knew me best. The invisibility, however nominal, is what made the admissions possible. The space simultaneously consecrated the exchange and maintained my distance from everything that had driven me to it: the opportunities lost, the failures sustained, the accumulation of the person I had somehow come to be.
“For the religious man space is not homogenous,” Eliade writes in The Sacred and the Profane. Certain spaces are sacred, characterized by their significance and structure in comparison to the triviality and formlessness of everything that surrounds them. “When the sacred manifests itself,” Eliade goes on to say, “there is not only a break in the homogeneity of space; there is also a revelation of an absolute reality.” The manifestation suggests a larger reality from which one can orient and create the rest of the world. Celtic Christians referred to such places, where the distance between heaven and earth diminishes, as “thin”; here, one is able to communicate more easily with the gods.
“Within the sacred precincts,” writes Eliade, “the profane world is transcended.” Whether made of wood or glass, the phone booth stands apart, and is made to stand apart, from the normal flow of life in which it is situated. Although primarily functional, their existence suggests something more profound: the necessity of sanctuary, without which life is untenable.
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