Between sickness and injury I’ve had a hard time moving forward on my many and varied projects. A plan to invite the public to edit and critique payphone locations mapped at NYCPayphones.com has stalled, and the most energy I’ve been able to muster in terms of updates to this site has been the Twitter feed. That is not a permanent state.
An interesting correspondence yesterday with a gentleman reminded me of answers I give to two questions I frequently get: Who still uses payphones, and why?
A 50+ year old man from a Boston suburb called to thank me for making my pages of Massachusetts payphone locations available. He was in search of a payphone because he wanted to be able to call somebody without his landline caller ID showing up on the other person’s phone, and he specifically asked me if it would be possible to make such a call with a credit card.
First of all I warned him not to regard data on The Payphone Project web site as an up-to-date resource. The payphone locations are kept available for historical purposes. You’d be surprised how often I field requests or get web traffic from people who, for one reason or another, need to confirm whether or not a payphone once existed at a certain place. The most prominent example of this in which I had direct involvement came some months ago when a producer of the “Serial” podcast contacted me to evaluate what came to be known as “The Mysterious Best Buy Payphone“. I never listened to the podcast so I don’t know how useful my input was, but it reminded me once again (not that I needed a reminder) of the value in making historical data available.
To my correspondent’s second point I suggested that the most likely places to find payphones these days are in transit hubs such as train stations and bus terminals. As he mentioned he was in a suburb of Boston I suggested South Station, where I saw several payphones when I was there last year.
To his third point the answer is yes, you can pay for long distance calls from payphones using a credit card, but don’t do it unless you have absolutely no other option. Costs for payphone calls paid for with credit cards are notoriously expensive, with irate consumers reporting charges of $25 a minute for long distance and even local calls.
There are two schools of thought about this situation. The most common conclusion is that these are predatory businesses operating a scam to rip people off in times of need.
The other opinion is that folks making calls in this manner should expect to pay a premium. Payphone usage is at an all time low but the cost of making payphones available remains high. As reported by the Chicago Tribune in 2013 the payphone industry blames the high costs of completing credit card calls from payphones on “expenses incurred by having to validate the payment method, billing and collection, bad debt, offering live operators and credit card processing fees.” Without these seemingly exorbitant fees, the argument goes, the payphone industry could not survive, and phones would not be available when your cell phone dies or gets lost.
The safer option for making long distance calls from payphones is to either bring a jar full of quarters and feed the coin slot or use pre-paid calling cards, which generally offer much better and clearer-to-understand rates.
To answer those two questions often posed to me — Who still uses payphones, and why? — I use this gentleman as an example. There are any number of legitimate, innocuous reasons why someone would want to call somebody so that their home phone number does not show up on the recipient’s caller ID. I do not know why this particular person felt he needed to do this but his very affable nature and admittedly Luddite approach to technology dispelled any thought that he was up to something sinister.
I did not feel a need to describe the numerous other techniques which exist to obscure one’s phone from caller ID boxes.
The common stereotype that drug dealers and criminals represent the payphone industry’s customer base has some historical basis in fact, but times have changed for those elements of society as much as anyone else. More and more drug dealing and illicit transactions have moved from the streets to the so called Dark Net. This trend, combined with the relentless disappearance of payphones from city streets, limits the payphone’s role in crime as much if not more than other functions.1
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.0
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.
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.
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.
This volume button actually worked, which was useful given the phone’s proximity to the noisy subway train.
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.
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.
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.2
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.2
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.
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.
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: