The Vanishing Pay Phone: (Almost) Gone, But Not Forgotten

One of my favorite bands, Maroon 5, has a hit single out right now entitled “Payphone” and, every time I hear it, I can’t help but wonder how many of their fans have ever used one.

Long before anybody ever heard of a cell phone, pay phones were everywhere. In addition to the iconic phone booths found at busy intersections, it was common knowledge that you could almost always find a pay phone at a gas station or the supermarket. In fact, there used to be so many of them that, as late as the turn of this century, there were still two million pay phones in the United States.

Not anymore.

According to the American Public Communications Council (APCC), a payphone industry proponent, today there are fewer than 500,000 remaining from sea to shining sea.

Even so, there are still 1.7 billion phone calls made from them.

That may seem surprising, but pay phones are invaluable in remote areas that don’t have cell phone coverage. And the APCC notes they’re also relied upon by 140 million Americans who don’t have cell phones.

Not everyone is a fan of pay phones; some communities have considered banning them because they tend to be a magnet for illicit activities.

When I was a kid I always kept a quarter on me in case I needed to use a payphone to call home.

Okay, you got me — it was dime.

Of course, dialing the operator is free, and most kids with empty pockets back then knew how to make a “collect” call from a pay phone without it costing Mom and Dad ten bucks. For example, in my case, it would go something like this:

“Um, yes, Operator, I’d like to make a collect call. It’s very important!”

“What number please?”

“714-555-3630″

“And who should I say is calling?”

“Um, Len.”

“Please hold, young man, while I dial the party.”

After somebody at home picked up the phone, the operator would then inform the receiving party of who was making the collect call. Luckily, that left a painfully short gap to get a quick message out. “Dad! Veteran’s Park! Bike broke!”

Naturally, Dad would decline the call — and then he’d be at the park ten minutes later.

When I was a kid, I used to love checking pay phone coin returns for abandoned change.

Then again, pay phones only returned your money if they couldn’t complete your call.

Well, if you were lucky they did.

By the way, people who have never used a pay phone may be surprised to learn that they don’t make change. So if you need to make a call that costs, say, 60 cents, and all you have in your pocket are three quarters, you can still make the call — you’ll just overpay for it by 15 cents.

Perhaps that’s why pay phones have been unfairly saddled with a reputation for being extremely expensive.

For their part, the APCC notes that using a pay phone can actually be less expensive than wireless alternatives. They also claim that putting coins in a pay phone can be cheaper than using a calling card.

Maybe that’s true. Of course, first you have to find one.

Photo Credit: Kate Mereand-Sinha



Comments

  1. 1

    says

    I miss these. They can be very helpful. My cell phone is bundled with my home phones, and once we had problems, they went out and we couldnt call to let them know (it happened after work, so i couldnt call from work)and I had to track the change down and even find a payphone to call. I was able to and that was about 5 years ago. Id hope I could find one now but who knows.

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      Well, Brandy, next time you need a pay phone, you can always check the pay phone registry for one near you:

      http://www.payphone-directory.org/

      This looks like a one-man show though that is dependent on personal reports, so it is a bit incomplete; there are only about 62,000 US pay phones registered right now.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      I know. I hated phone numbers with lots of 9s and 0s in them because they took longer to dial! Don’t think the phone company didn’t understand that; why do you think Los Angeles’ area code is 213 and New York City’s is 212? (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

      When I was a kid, I thought we really hit it big when our new kitchen phone came with a lighted dial! (Oh, and a 10+ foot stretchy cord!

  2. 5

    says

    Well after you gained more respect from me with your hockey post last week, you just had to reveal that you’re a maroon 5 fan. Disappointed Len lol.

    As for payphones I recall having to do that same collect call trick too. It actually worked pretty well if you just had a short message to pass on. A little while back I remember having to try to find a pay phone for something and it was a bit shocking to realize how they had all but disappeared. When you don’t use something it’s easy to not notice there gradually being less and less of them.

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      Oops. Well, Jeremy, I debated whether I should have admitted I was a Maroon 5 fan, but then I figured “what the hell!”

      Come on now; it’s not as if I admitted being a Justin Bieber fan. lol

      (And just to be clear: I’m not.)

  3. 7

    says

    I may have used them a couple times as a kid but not enough to clearly remember. I got a cell phone when I was 16 And haven’t used a pay phone since. The other day I saw a sign for one attached to a telephone pole but there was no payphone to be found.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      I can’t remember the last time I used one either. I’m sure it was more than five years ago.

  4. 9

    says

    Pay phones have their place in society! Unfortunately, if it does not produce revenue it is gone. Insome areas, they are vandalized too. So you have no revenue and equipment destroyed.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      Speaking of them being vandalized … my biggest pet peeve with payphones was that, more often than not, the phone book was usually missing. Am I wrong?

      Finding a pay phone on a street corner or in a city park with the phone book attached to it was a tall tall order.

  5. 11

    Michael in SoCal says

    I had the same deal with my parents too, regarding the collect call. They already knew where I needed to get picked up from, so they would decline the collect call and be on their way. Oh the nostalgia…

  6. 13

    Putri says

    The last time I used a pay phone was when I went to apply for US visa in Vancouver, Canada.

    The consular office has very strict rules about what you can’t bring to the visa appointment. No cell phones, bag, food, drink, so pretty much all you can do is go there and come home. No big umbrellas (and this is in rainy Vancouver). No parking either, so don’t drive if you’re going there! Sheesh.

    So I had my boyfriend wait at a nearby mall and called him from a payphone after my appointment to meet up with him.

  7. 15

    TimeStruck says

    I stumbled upon your site and I’m enjoying it! As I was reading this article, I came across your words “begs the question” and immediately recalled this article from Huff Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoe-triska/the-phrase-youre-probably_b_1599663.html

    Basically, the term “begs the question” is misused when ‘raising a question’. Its correct usage is to call attention to a’fallacy of presumption’, as the article points out.

    • 16

      Len Penzo says

      Thanks for the clarification. I’m not surprised I misused the term, TS. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve embarrassed myself by mangling the English language here! lol

      In this case, I’m going to leave the offending line in the article, however, because my intended usage is now part of the American vernacular.

  8. 18

    Betsy22 says

    A couple of years ago I was desperately searching for a pay phone in Baton Rouge, LA – the problem was that my pre-paid cell didn’t get reception down there, and I had been counting on using a phone in order to set up a meeting time w/ somebody or another.

    I never did find a pay phone, but luckily someone else let me make the call on their phone.

  9. 19

    says

    I recall the last time that I used a pay phone. Of course, it was years ago. My cell phone battery died 2-3 times. During those times, I urgently needed to make a phone call. What better way to do so than the pay phone! It’s one of those retro, classic things that you miss along with 80′s Hair Metal and 90′s Dance music. Thank you for writing this article and helping my mind recall the pay phone era.

  10. 20

    debbie z says

    You can still find pay phones at truck stops and motels in cheap areas where the average customer is presumed to not own a cell with unlimited calls.

    Truckers still use them to call offices and home so it should be at least another 10-15 years before they vanish completely.

  11. 21

    Frank Bittner says

    You fail to mention how many of what once were regional BELL TELEPHONE COMPANIES have persuaded Congress and many of our states legislatures to allow them do away with payphones. Since most all are are now in the cell phone business they prefer everyone rely on their mostly Unregulated Cell Phone network. In most cases The few that remain in critical locations have been sold off to an independent Texas conglomerate, if you can find one that works BEWARE, a collect call may now cost you as much as $14.95 for the first few minutes. By the way all the regional Phone Companies have been lobbying Congress and States Legislatures for years to allow them to get out of being forced to provide Public Payphone Service, the inducement offered was to provide Free Cell Phones to the poor and under privileged. I’m sorry to disappoint critics but our government had little to do with the giving away of FREE CELL PHONES.

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