On the street
I used a pay phone probably about 11 months ago when I was studying abroad in Europe.
Pay phone receiver wedged between shoulder and ear, Richard Dean listened carefully. Around him car doors slammed. Wheels squeaked and rattled. Children squealed, giggled and sometimes cried. Noisy and imperfect, the pay phone at Dillons, 1740 Mass., is as close to an office as Richard Dean gets.
When he needs to make a call, he’ll strut to the store, clasping a clipboard scribbled with names and numbers in one hand.
“When I need a phone, I use a pay phone,” says Dean, 40. “I have no other option.”
Dean is part of a dwindling minority: adult Americans without cell phones or landlines. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 85 percent of people now have cell phones, compared to 61 percent in 2005. The near-universal adoption of cell phones has corroded older forms of communication — notably, the pay phone.
Sure, the pay phone still exists, but it’s fading fast: In the 1980s there were nearly 3 million; now there are under a million, according to the American Public Communications Council.
“You could find them in laundromats, hotels, streetcorners and diners,” says Jeffrey Moran, a professor of history at KU. “Pay phones were everywhere from the 1950s through the 1970s. Their use declined in the 1980s, and by the 1990s they were definitely on their way out.”
Now, says Moran, phone companies everywhere are yanking and chucking pay phones, letting the clunky heaps join the ranks of typewriters, black and white TVs, and transistor radios; the once-treasured, but now forgotten. Pay phones still service a niche audience, but that audience is too fragmented to interest a profit-focused industry.
Telecommunications giant AT&T; exited the pay phone business in 2007 because cell phones eroded revenues.
“After years a declining demand for pay phone services, we withdrew,” says Michael Coe. If a phone was integral to a town or a business, though, AT&T; let independent providers take over the old phones in order to preserve the connection. One example is Canyon, Calif.
Cell phone service in Canyon, population 197, is rare. Citizens have always relied on the pay phone to talk to out-of-towners. But one day, two years ago, AT&T; threatened to pull the phone without warning. Edging its way out of the pay phone business, AT&T; had sent an attendant to Canyon, instructing him to dismantle the town’s only phone.
Before the attendant could tear it down, though, Canyon’s postmistress, Elena Tyrrell, trotted out and told him he wasn’t “taking that pay phone out from in front of my office.”
Tyrrell’s tenacity persuaded the man to leave the phone, at least temporarily. Tyrrell and the citizens of Canyon ended up having to buy the pay phone for $900, and then make monthly payments to an independent phone operator to secure the dial tone.
“We needed a pay phone,” says Tyrrell. “It was a safety issue.”
According to Moran, pay phones tend to be more popular in poorer neighborhoods. But as cell phones become more affordable, the demand for pay phones continues to shrivel.
The Lawrence Public Library used to have two pay phones, but ended up scrapping one because no one used it.
Library Director Bruce Flanders says pay phone use has slumped so much within the past few years it seems to have vanished completely.
“It has declined over time to the point where I don’t see the pay phone being used at all,” says Flanders. “I hardly ever observe a person using the phone, ever.”
But the phone is being used: When Dillons is too crowded, Dean tends to trek to the library — his favorite spot in town — where there’s less traffic and more privacy. For some, pay phones are just as vital to life today as they were in the 1970s, which is why the relics still linger.