As the Mayan-predicted end of the world is upon us, I am sitting on the precipice of civilization, looking at seemingly the last remaining pay phone in the world. Pay phones used to be easy to find. They weren’t perfect. Some coin-operated telephones had broken cords, no handset, no phone book. Many phone booths had been used for unspeakable activities. Others were like a dream, with all parts intact, clean and working, the kind of place that Superman and Dr. Who might step in to, in an emergency.
When pay phones ruled the sidewalks, anyone with a dime could make a call, and if you had a pocketful of change you could talk for minutes, clanging in additional coin-of-the-realm whenever the operator “horned in” and threatened to disconnect the call. College students shared the one pay phone on their dormitory hall to phone home. Women walking alone could seek assistance at any functioning pay phone. We knew where the pay phones were, even if we were a bit afraid of the voice of the operator, interrupting, in that all-powerful voice like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine.
You could game the system if you were short of cash. If you called “collect” and hung up quickly after saying your name (“Will you accept a collect call from Fred?”), your friend could call you back “on their nickel.” Expats living in Paris knew that a long line of waiting immigrants standing in line by a phone signaled a phone that had been broken (now we would say “hacked”) so this special pay phone could be used for free to call home in some faraway country.
Today, the American pay phone industry claims there are just a one and a half million pay phones in existence. One hundred and forty million Americans have no cell phone, and fourteen million have no home phone either. That’s a lot of people who must still know where the pay phones are.
The pay phone was the automat of communication, but instead of opening a little door to pull out a piece of pie, as was possible at the Horn and Hardart automats in New York City, you put in your dime and presto! there was a person talking at the other end of a line. The automat, that magical drive-up window for pedestrians, is a thing of the past. So is the omnipotent “phone company,” and so is the shared experience of the pay phone.
The IPhone 5 is available now, and who doesn’t lust after its shiny, sleek profile holding a box of mysteries and enchantments? It will only cost you $1,000 a year, all told, or ten thousand dimes. These phones work, their phone books don’t have pages missing, and they are personal and clean. But where do recent immigrants go to make a call at low cost?
And, where is the common experience that binds us all together in today’s America?
I find hope for the common experience at the increasing number of local diners run by recent immigrants, often from Central America and Brazil. At these local diners the coffee is hot, the plates are mismatched because there are no matching plates, not by design, and the prices are reasonable. The waitress prices your meal as “sides” to save any diner a few bucks.
You can tell you are in the right place because the menu includes an option of a large bowl of fruit. Rich and poor, we all come in for the fruit. The fruit is uniformly fresh and juicy, never defrosted from a bag of institutional frozen fruit salad. Frozen melon has a squishy, spongy consistency because all the cell walls have been compromised by freezing. Frozen melon is not good, and there is nothing more to say about it. The local diner fruit bowl is truly the “low-hanging fruit”, to use a horrible term from business-speak, and I am picking it now, just before the end of the world.
To be continued…..