Who Still Uses Payphones?

When I first started taking pictures of people in the act of using payphones I thought it seemed risky. With stigmas associated with payphone usage I imagined that people using them might feel conspicuous simply for doing so. That sense of conspicuity could fuel anxieties and lead to altercations if they thought they were being documented in the act.

Who Still Uses<br /><br />

Alas, I find that most people talking on public telephones are oblivious to their surroundings, just the same as folks talking on cell phones.

Still, I have demurred a number of times from taking a picture. Last week I was ready to document a gentleman using a payphone on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. As I reached for a camera he turned and looked at me, as if he knew I was scouting him out. He looked shady, even dangerous. I do not think he was actually talking to anybody on the phone. He was looking around, nervously taking in the surrounding environment. He used the phone as a prop to help him look occupied so that his apparent purposelessness would not attract suspicion.

I used to see that type of behavior in subway stations in the early 1990s. People idly picked up payphones and went through the motions of dialing a number and depositing coins to make a call. Having actually deposited no money they were really just listening to the hum of a dial tone (assuming the phone worked and that there was a dial tone). They performed this strange charade of having a conversation, moving their lips a little to convince their imaginary skeptical observers, until the train they needed arrived and they hung up the phone — without even saying goodbye!

People Using Payphones

I noticed this behaviour most frequently late at night. Nervous commuters waiting for a train clung to payphones in an attempt to look busy, their instincts telling them that unsavory elements of subway society would not bother them if they appeared actively engaged on the phone.

I found the behavior curiously conflicted. On the one hand I think people subconsciously feel that being on the phone — and being seen talking on the phone — makes them look important to others. On the other hand the act of pretending to make a phone call in the manner described above seeks to deflect attention by communicating to potential harassers that you are busy, and no reasonable mugger or beggar would want to interrupt someone with their demands while they are busy.

People Using Payphones

I think the question of who uses payphones in a cell phone world is not so much about who but why. The bare term “demographic” does not seem to apply, though I may be ignorant to subtleties of its usage in sociological terms. To me the word “demographic” suggests a uniformity of character or circumstance among those individuals the group comprises, be it age, gender, race, etc. The profile of people who use public phones today is basically random.

Who Still Uses<br /><br />

My photos may be anecdotal but I think they help illustrate that no single socioeconomic characteristic or demographic is common to all or even a majority of payphone users. The population of payphone users today comprises a variety of what I call situational demographics: tourists who chose not to bring cell phones on their vacation; people who choose to obscure their identity by calling from a number not associated with them; people who simply lost their cell phones; people in some sort of emergency situation.

If one characteristic unifies a significant percentage of payphone users I think it is the veil of anonymity that many assume they can hide behind by making calls from public phones. This need for anonymity can have a sinister element, or it can be perfectly innocent.

To many people the stereotypical payphone users are drug dealers, prostitutes, and two-bit hooligans who want to avoid having their call records tracked. There is legitimate historical basis for these stereotypes (as I hope to describe in a future article) but it appears that payphone usage today cuts across a range of purposes and personalities that defies succinct summary.

People Using Payphones

Some years ago an anonymous contributor to Gawker.com reported a sighting of CBS newsman Mike Wallace using an Upper East Side payphone. While noting that Wallace seemed “pretty nonchalant” the contributor speculated with both humor and seriousness that “maybe this is phone (sic) for confidential calls from sources, where he goes and waits and looks at a balcony across the street to see if they moved the flower pot”.

Mike Wallace was not known as a Luddite who eschewed modern technology, so we will probably never know exactly why he chose to use a payphone on that specific day or who he was talking to, but the Gawker anecdote illustrates how people regard payphone usage among seemingly reputable people of means as something mysterious or intriguing.

Who Still Uses<br /><br />

I have used payphones myself after receiving calls from collection agents claiming I owed someone money. I have not owed anyone money for a very long time but I called the number they left to make sure I knew who they were without the risk of them knowing I called back and then harassing me more by exploiting loopholes in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

There is a trend nationwide in which some cities have seen a marked increase in emergency 911 calls made from payphones. I have no methodologically arrived at explanation for this but I speculate that people calling 911 to report crimes do not want to be associated with the incidents they are reporting, either through subpoena of 911 call center records or by scrutiny of their own phone’s call logs.

Who Still Uses<br /><br />

I know of a particular incident in which residents of a Queens housing project used a certain payphone to call 911 to report gang activity. The phone was out of service for months when Verizon did not restore the copper landline that would have given it dial tone. The residents filed a 311 complaint to get the phone restored to service — specifically mentioning that they wanted to use it to report gang activity — but Verizon never restored the line and the phone was removed altogether.

The closest thing I’ve seen to a “study” of who still uses payphones was a piece in the New York Times (to which I contributed but got no mention, grumblegrumble) from February 12, 2010. A Times reporter camped out at one payphone and attempted to interview those who used it. To keep it interesting the Times chose a payphone outside Queens Criminal Court:

Listening In on a Pay Phone in Queens

The Times reportage does not pass muster as a “study” (nor was it intended to) but it opens an interesting window into the lives of people from one situational demographic in which access to public telephones remains critical.

Who Still Uses<br /><br />

A study of payphone usage today which seeks to identify a more traditional demographic (ethnicity, income level, etc.) could be attempted by locating areas where call activity is highest, then using census data to draw conclusions about what societal class of people uses payphones the most.

To that end I cite this list of the top performing payphones in New York City for the 3rd fiscal quarter of 2013. The first two are missing exact addresses but the others are precise. One lucky payphone at 40-02 104th Avenue in Corona made a whopping $565! That’s a lot coins.

East 161st St., Bronx ($463.50)
West 31st St., Manhattan ($419.70)
82-19 Roosevelt Ave., Queens ($397.20)
172 West 42nd St., Manhattan ($424.10)
81-02 Roosevelt Ave., Queens ($426.60)
601 8th Ave., Manhattan ($496.15)
40-02 104th St, Queens ($565.30)

But call activity today is so low that pinpointing these busiest spots and characterizing residents of adjacent census tracts as heavy payphone users would be misleading.

Overall the picture of who uses payphones is delightfully random. Some are well dressed, others unkempt. Some are foreign travelers, others are native New Yorkers. Some are young, some are old. Some are disturbed but most are sane. See for yourself at my ongoing photo essay documenting people in the act of using payphones.

People Using Payphones

Descanso for Sabrina Mangos, and Memories of a Payphone

This old payphone was the site of a descanso in memory of a 10-year-old Australian girl killed at this spot in a ghastly car accident. A friend of mine — an eyewitness to the crash — described it as “the most Godawful thing I ever saw in my life.” Local residents and witnesses to the crash continued to leave mementos at the site for over a year, with fresh candles and teddy bears appearing regularly until the payphone was taken out of service and removed.

Descansos for Sabrina Mangos
Descansos for Sabrina Mangos
Descansos for Sabrina Mangos
Descansos for Sabrina Mangos

I learned of Sabrina Mangos’ horrifying death in September, 2011, after reading a printout of a Daily News story affixed to the payphone enclosure, formerly located at 31st Street and 34th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. Her funeral in Australia drew over 1500 mourners.

Descansos for Sabrina Mangos
Descansos for Sabrina Mangos
Descansos for Sabrina Mangos
Descansos for Sabrina Mangos

Family and friends have since turned tragedy into a positive by creating a charitable foundation in Sabrina’s name. The Sabrina Mangos Foundation remains active, and since 2012 has donated money to numerous charities.

I never could disassociate the phone with what happened there, but it was a source of other memories, too. This was among the first payphones I used for a project in which I called a voicemail box and left messages which were automatically transferred to Sorabji.MOBI, my experimental site in which all content was posted from mobile devices and non-desktop computers. I wanted to capture the rugged, monochrome sound of the landline (and the public telephone in particular) while connecting with a small cadre of people who still visited that web site. The substance of the calls got progressively more depressing as I was going through a particularly rough period of my life.

You can get a feel for what calls from this phone sounded like by listening in to this recording from November 2, 2012. I had gone out to Calvary Cemetery that day to see how much damage Sandy had caused:

Whatever insulation this enclosure could offer from noise was welcome given the phone’s location underneath an above-ground subway. You can hear that train roar by about 15 seconds into this recording.

An interesting characteristic of certain payphones around here was how call quality deteriorated the longer the call was connected. In this call my voice sounds reasonably clear at the start but gets progressively more garbled. I speculated that payphone service providers intentionally set it up like that so calls would end quickly.

There were filthier payphone enclosures in town but this one was pretty nasty. With God-knows-what encrusted on its inside panel and ageless graffiti permanently scrawled thereupon the enclosure made it feel like I had stepped into a swamp. It seemed to permanently smell of urine, cigar smoke, and mystery scents that made my eyes water.

Memories of a Payphone: Graffiti and Filth
Memories of a Payphone: Graffiti and Filth
Memories of a Payphone: Graffiti and Filth
Memories of a Payphone: Graffiti and Filth
Memories of a Payphone: Graffiti and Filth
Memories of a Payphone: Graffiti and Filth

This volume button actually worked, which was useful given the phone’s proximity to the noisy subway train.

Memories of a Payphone
Memories of a Payphone

Manufactured by the Acoustics Development Corporation of Northbrook, Illinois, the enclosure appears to be identified in this barely-readable plaque as a “Wired Outdoor Telephone Booth.” Most people use the terms “phone booth” and “payphone” synonymously. I try to be strict about using the term “phone booth” in reference only to payphone enclosures with doors that close all the way behind you. That would make this an enclosure and not a booth.

Wired Outdoor Telephone Booth
Wired Outdoor Telephone Booth

I frequently used this phone years ago. My landline phone service was disrupted for a couple of weeks and this was the only payphone within walking distance that actually worked. At the time I remember there being many other phones that were closer but none of them ever had dial tone.

I also used this phone a few times to call 311. I remember reporting dead livestock lying in the middle of a street, and an abandoned vehicle that had been parked nearby for 8 months. In the former case I had spotted a bag of dead birds on Northern Boulevard and thought it odd enough to call 311. In the latter case I called for a third time to report an abandoned vehicle, mentioning in passing that the car was being broken into by a group of kids. With that I was transferred to 911, as this was a crime in progress. I asked why they can’t just get rid of the source of the problem rather then chase after the crime it attracts.

I also called 311 from this phone to report a crosswalk signal on 21st Street that had been turned at a 45-degree angle, making the WALK signal appear exactly where the DON’T WALK signal should have been. I made that 311 call after seeing a couple of elderly people who saw that errant WALK signal calmly stroll right into traffic as car horns wailed at them and drivers cursed.

Memories of a Payphone: 718-278-9720
Memories of a Payphone: 718-278-9720

The phone’s number — 718-278-9720 — is the third record listed on this New York City payphone numbers page, one of countless pages at The Payphone Project which lists past locations of public telephones. It can be interesting to browse those lists for the names of forgotten places that have disappeared since the list was more current in the mid to late 1990s. I have no memory of a Kafe Lloyd at 36-19 Broadway, and no other trace of it is found through a cursory search of the Internet, but its memory endures on the above mentioned page thanks to the fact that a payphone was once located at or near its location.


New York City Payphone Locator: Help Edit

New York City’s Payphone Locator takes data from the city’s map of PPT (Public Pay Telephone) Locations and uses it as a starting point for a fuller, more comprehensive overview of where Gotham payphones really are in this year of 2015.

I was happy but surprised when New York City first released its PPT dataset and map in 2012. I had requested such a release many months earlier but was wholly ignored. After the events of superstorm Sandy I resubmitted the request, citing the need for working public telephones in times of crisis. That time around the city quickly issued the dataset, though I do not know how much urgency my request in particular brought to the matter.

The first release of the PPT Location data was interesting but, on closer analysis, a little disappointing. It was filled with errors and omissions. Payphones removed years earlier appeared on the map, while phones located in places like subway stations, bus terminals, and airports were not included at all.

The first release of the PPT Locations dataset seemed like a good start, and I imagined that over time its quality would improve.

Quality has improved but in its most recent release last month the dataset is still filled with references to public phones that disappeared years ago. Based on a survey comparing the PPT map’s payphone locations to what is actually on the streets of western Queens, for example, I would guesstimate that at least 30-35% of the data is bad.

Originally released in the wake of Sandy the PPT dataset today has a new relevance. LinkNYC — a consortium of technology and advertising companies — is planning to replace the city’s army of payphones with more modern devices offering gigabit Wi-Fi access and other communication and information services. This has a lot of people looking at the city’s map of payphone locations as some kind of blueprint for how and where this municipal Internet-everywhere service will be distributed.

Skeptics of LinkNYC are few — or maybe we are overwhelmed by the barrage of propaganda that heralded the city’s approval of the program — but the voices of dissent in this matter sound clearer and more believable to me than the rah-rah rhetoric of its supporters.

Promises of job creation and revenue forecasts for this advertising-supported program are suspiciously rosy, while the checkered relationship some members of the LinkNYC consortium have had with city and state agencies should be a point of concern.

Flying in to that already murky political maelstrom are accusations of cronyism, conflict of interest, and municipally sanctioned monopoly that will almost certainly be talking points in the inevitable lawsuits facing the city.

And something that most observers would probably not know is that the payphone service provider chosen for this coalition has a horrible track record (compared to other New York City payphone service providers) of simply keeping its payphones operational. Look for the LinkNYC “Links” to be as reliable as payphones of today.

The PPT Locations dataset is reasonably large (comprising over 6,000 records) but it doesn’t seem so big that such a high percentage of fundamental errors should slip through. Smaller, less significant errors appear here and there, as would occur in any sizeable data product of this sort, but for the city to use its error-filled map to build enthusiasm for replacing payphones that do not even exist seems either weirdly cynical or selectively ignorant.

So I finally decided to start a project of fixing it up. Creating my own set of maps I stuffed the dataset into WordPress and quickly removed over 30 payphone locations that I knew right off the bat did not exist. Focusing on western Queens (an area I know best) I found wide swaths of space filled with phantom payphones (according to the city’s map). The The New York City Payphone Locator‘s version of the map (only for western Queens, as of now) paints an entirely different picture of Gotham’s public telephone landscape today, and perhaps a different picture of how much coverage LinkNYC’s promise of free Internet-for-all will truly have.

I do not expect to canvass all 5 boroughs of New York, checking off over 6000 payphones for their existence or lack thereof, all by myself. You can help. If you want to take a crack at editing The New York City Payphone Locator please visit the site to learn more. In a lot of cases verifying a payphone’s existence (or lack thereof) can be done entirely through Bing’s Streetside or Google’s Streetview. Having explored this for a few days I find that there is a certain technique to it, that sometimes you simply have to go to the physical location of the alleged payphone, and neither of those reality-scrapers is entirely reliable for something like this. With enough interest shown I will open the site’s underlying database to public editing.

Contact me here.


Payphone of the East River, 11 Years Later

When I spotted this disembodied payphone component in the East River last week I immediately recognized it as the remains of a burned out, illegally discarded payphone I photographed at the same place 11 years ago in August, 2003.

Payphone SS Upper Armor
Payphone SS Upper Armor

This object appears to be the SS Upper Armor, a style of stainless steel body guard which stands at the front line of vandalism repellent for most coin-operated public telephones.

In 2003 I spotted this SS Upper Armor still affixed to a more-or-less intact payphone, complete save for its seemingly bloodied and screaming open mouth where the coin receptacle used to be.

Illegally Dumped Payphone Carcass, East River
Illegally Dumped Payphone Carcass, East River

In 2003 I remember being puzzled by this bit of illegal dumping. Why would someone go to that much trouble to discard a payphone?

Looking at that picture today the answer seems obvious: It is evidence of a crime. The phone had been forcibly opened and possibly burned, igniting my speculation that someone attacked it with a blowtorch, melting away the exterior to get at the bounty of coins within.

The phone, almost certainly stolen, was chucked into the river by someone unaware of the coming and going of the tides, someone who probably thought the phone would lie there forever in watery oblivion.

At the time a payphone warehouse existed across the street. I do not remember that payphone company’s name but I doubt they had anything to do with trashing this phone. It is more likely this phone was stolen from them. Someone with skills in opening payphones would have no need to resort to torching it just to get at coins inside.

I can find no trace of the payphone today as it appeared in 2003. While the armor component is stainless steel (that should never rust) a large part of a payphone’s innards are made of plastic and soluble materials that either disconnected from the armor or disintegrated altogether into the sloshing dirt of East River filth.

Payphone theft might seem like a waste of effort these days but it’s been pretty common over the years, as these links illustrate:


The Payphones Of Futures Past

[box] A slightly shorter version of this story appeared earlier at Ask A New Yorker, where I expect to contribute stories about payphones and other matters on an ongoing basis. Find my Ask A New Yorker stories here.[/box]

The so-called “payphone of the future” has come and gone a number of times since the mid-1990s. The AT&T Public Phone 2000 could be found at most major airports, along with garishly ugly contraptions such as the Atcom/Info Cyberbooth and TouchNet Internet Business Centers.

Telco companies large and small produced a wide range of these now forgotten thingumabobs which offered pay-as-you-go Internet, telephone and fax services.

While those products targeted business travelers it was TCC Teleplex’s Internet Kiosk (better known as the “Internet payphone”) that brought such devices to New York’s streets. The Internet payphone in New York premiered in 2002, inhabiting our sidewalks in dozens of locations for about 8 years.

In 2010 TCC Teleplex announced it would replace its Internet payphones with solar-powered “green” models. That never happened, and the underappreciated innovation of the Internet payphone disappeared.

Fast forward to 2014 and the payphone of the future is back. On November 14th New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to replace the city’s stable of outdoor public telephones with “Links” — multipurpose public kiosks which would offer free Wi-Fi, touchscreen information services, cell phone charging stations, and (surprisingly) the ability to make phone calls.

Payphones would not entirely disappear from New York under this plan, which targets thousands of outdoor payphones lining the city’s sidewalks and curbs. Phones located in subway stations, airports, bus terminals, theaters, and other venues are not in the crosshairs of this potential payphone bloodbath, though market factors would presumably force them out of business anyway. How can pay-as-you-go telephones survive when thousands of devices offering exactly the same service for free abound? This anticompetitive move should interest the city’s regulatory committees as they review the proposal.

For better or worse I am happy to see that the Payphone Project’s call for payphones to be free phones has inched one step closer to reality. If LinkNYC lives up to its promise New Yorkers could make free calls (of as yet unspecified length) anywhere in the U.S.

It is not clear if Links would allow international calls in a manner akin to prepaid calling cards, which remain popular among immigrants and tourists.

The LinkNYC plan — which requires approval by New York’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) — is put forward by CityBridge, a consortium of companies headed by Titan, the display advertising company that presently owns a majority of the city’s outdoor payphones.

This plan to essentially erase traditional coin-fed phones from city streets has New York’s payphone community (what’s left of it, that is) asking a lot of questions, chief among them simply “Why choose Titan?” It is a reasonable query given that company’s somewhat checkered past with city and state agencies.

Four years ago the MTA terminated its contract with Titan after the company defaulted on about $20,000,000 it owed the agency. Titan claimed to be blindsided by the MTA’s move.

More recently Titan caused a minor kerfuffle when Bluetooth beacons were revealed to have been placed on its public telephones. The beacons, capable of sending and receiving information from smartphones and other bluetooth devices, raised hackles from privacy activists claiming the devices’ placement — and the fact that they were installed with no public announcement or input — evidenced some sort of guerilla advertising-aware surveillance initiative.

The beacons were installed with the approval of the city’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT).

Informed observers recognized the ludicrousness of those privacy concerns, but facts seldom prevent such a story from going viral.

The beacons were removed.

Despite its lack of substance the beacon “scandal” — along with the company’s sometimes rocky relationship with the city — made Titan a surprising recipient of such a major telecommunications contract.

I would welcome the possibility of free domestic phone calls being available to all, assuming that service is actually reliable, especially in emergencies such as power outages. LinkNYC claims that each device would have a one hour battery backup for such scenarios. An hour is not an impressively long period of time. It’s also not clear how the calls will be connected. Assuming the copper landline which provides dial tone to most of today’s payphones is not in play then either a wireless cell phone signal would be used, or else VOIP. VOIP is the choice then a lot of new and potentially expensive infrastructure will need to be put in place. If wireless cell phone towers would be used to connect free calls then they might not work at all during a blackout or natural disaster scenario.

It would be unfortunate if one characteristic passed on from payphones of today to LinkNYC is that the devices almost never work. Advertising comes first in the payphone business, and with virtually all of its expected income coming from ad revenues there is little reason to assume the same would not hold true for LinkNYC.

Payphones today commonly remain out of service for months as service companies wait for Verizon to restore dial tone to their phones. With that copper landline wiring presumably not in the picture the phone service offered by LinkNYC could actually be more reliable than today’s public telephones on a day to day basis, but the guaranteed ability to make calls in the wake up superstorms, earthquakes, and power outages is something that the FCRC should mandate.

CityBridge implies that its Links would be better taken care of than payphones of today, as hundreds of new jobs would be created for the purpose of servicing them. That promise hinges entirely on the success of the advertising business model, which could take years to establish itself.

The monopolistic nature of CityBridge’s ownership of these kiosks should concern the FCRC, which will conduct a public hearing about the matter on December 8th. With no legitimate competition and no financial incentive to keep the Links’ “free” features functional it is easy to imagine thousands of these devices languishing in disrepair, save for their ability to display advertisments — just like payphones of today.

CityBridge claims LinkNYC will earn the city half a billion dollars over 12 years, or an average of about $42 million a year in the long term. With a goal of installing as many as 10,000 of these kiosks it would take some time to reach that promise, as thousands of these units could not simply rise up overnight. Indeed, I have to ask why there has not been any kind of public beta testing of this product to evaluate its worksmanship, not to mention its value to everyday New Yorkers.

The possibility of raking in $42 million a year puts LinkNYC’s potential value to New York quite a bit higher than kiosks of today. About $17 million from payphone kiosk advertising revenues enriched city coffers in 2013.

The city might need that extra money to fend off contentious and expensive litigation. Telebeam and other payphone providers warned throughout the RFP process of lawsuits targeting what they describe as a municipally sanctioned monopoly. Telecommunications lawyers, already chomping at the bit in anticipation of litigation, see the lawsuits as inevitable.

All in all I just have to ask “Why?” The value of this program has not been proven to such a point that awarding a lengthy 12-year contract to implement it makes sense.

LinkNYC, should it be approved, has a lot of promises — maybe too many — to live up to. And while prototypes of the blandly named Links devices look reasonably modern and sleek the pace at which technology evolves could, in just a few years, have them looking like those homely payphones of the future from decades ago.


Serial Podcast: The Mysterious Best Buy Payphone

This post from Nov. 7 was updated Nov. 23, 2014, for clarity, and to make a handful of new observations.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to back up the folks producing Serial, a multipart podcast from the creators of This American Life, in their research into whether or not a payphone once existed in 1999 at a specific location in Baltimore, Maryland.

You might be surprised how often I get contacted by individuals seeking to verify if a payphone once existed at a certain spot. I have not fielded many such calls lately, but I think this is the first time I’ve been asked to help determine if a payphone did not exist.

I had not heard of “Serial” until the show’s producer contacted me, and to be honest from our conversation I did not get much of a sense about what it was. I have not had time to listen to the entire series — the programs vary in length from about a half hour to almost an hour — but I was happy to offer whatever I could to back up research already done and to offer other advice. My tips:

  • In 1999 Bell Atlantic was the largest payphone service provider in Maryland. Odds are that if a payphone actually existed at the Best Buy it was owned by them. Bell Atlantic is now Verizon. Contacting that company’s payphone department is certainly worth a try, but I would be amazed if that company had records of this type going back 15 years.
  • Going to the Best Buy itself and inspecting the sidewalk outside the building for indications that a payphone had been removed should also be done, though there seems to be some debate as to whether the payphone was alleged to have been inside the building or outside. Click here for a photo gallery showing the many different ways a payphone leaves its mark behind after removal.
  • Contacting the American Public Communications Council would probably be a long shot as far as getting any precise information, but they might have insights into who else was in the payphone business back then, and who might still be around.
  • Contacting long-time locally run payphone service providers might open some window into the history of payphones in Baltimore (I suggested Robin Technologies).

At about the 8:15 point of episode 5 Sarah Koenig says:

“I just want to pause here and talk about this phone booth for a minute. Weirdly, we have not been able to confirm its existence. The Best Buy employees I talked to did not remember a payphone back then. We spoke to the landlord at the time and to the property manager, they had no record of a payphone. They dug up a photo of the store, from 2001, no phone booth or payphone, though lots of public phones did come down between ‘99 and 2001. They looked up the blueprints for the store when it was built in 1995, nothing. The manager also said there is no record of a service agreement between Best Buy and any payphone company at that store. We checked with the Maryland public service commission. We checked with Verizon. Neither could track down records from that far back.”

The above transcript is borrowed from this Reddit thread, which cites the Payphone Project a number of times.

After episode 5 was published I received a surprising quantity of e-mails from “Serial” listeners inquiring about the accuracy and provenance of the Payphone Project’s information.

The quality of the historical payphone information varies from place to place, but it turns out the data for payphone locations that used to exist in Baltimore is actually pretty good. Most of the phones are gone today but members of the “Serial” staff verified that a few still exist, and further concluded that most of the payphone locations listed on the Baltimore payphones page were pretty plausible.

The Best Buy in question is located at 1701 Belmont Avenue in Baltimore. The Payphone Project has a listing for a payphone located at that address, but the location is described as a “RAMADA HOTEL”, not a Best Buy.

As Reddit sleuths revealed, that Ramada Inn was torn down and replaced by the Best Buy in 1995. It seems unlikely that a payphone would survive the demolition unless it was situated outside the building and far enough away that the wrecking ball couldn’t swing.

There is no need to prove that a payphone actually existed at the Ramada Inn, though memories from anyone who worked there as to what became of it (and who owned it) might be revealing. Did the owner of the payphone approach Best Buy to ask if they were interested in continuing to offer payphone service at that address, and if so was that payphone owner rebuffed?

The producer I spoke with made a comment that I didn’t think to disagree with until later. She suggested that payphones were already in decline in 1999, and that wholesale routing of public pay telephones had already begun.

In fact 1999 was something of a “last gasp” for the payphone industry, which statistics show saw a nationwide increase of about 35,000 phones between 1997 and 1999.

Statistic: Total number of payphones in the United States from 1997 to 2009 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

If this offers any support for the Best Buy payphone’s existence then it may be subsequently offset by other factors — particularly the stigma many businesses have long associated with payphones located directly outside their property. It’s quite likely that Best Buy’s management may simply have not wanted to host an instrument commonly associated with crime and drugs.

Lack of documentation absolutely proving the Best Buy payphone’s existence does not necessarily mean anything. But evidence weighs pretty heavily toward the payphone’s disappearance when the Ramada Inn was razed, and a new one was probably never installed when the Best Buy opened.

Having not found time to listen to the series I do not have an appreciation for how crucial this bit of information is. The folks at Reddit seem to think it’s pretty relevant: