Caller ID, Payphones, and Fictitious 555 Numbers.

I spotted this discussion, which focuses on the question of what shows up on caller ID when one receives a call from a payphone. It got me thinking.

Calls from payphones can show up on caller ID in a variety of ways. If I call a cell phone from a New York City payphone it shows only the number of the phone, and the state from which the call originated (New York), nothing else. No UNAVAILABLE or UNKNOWN, just the number and the state name. The same was true when my girlfriend called from a New Jersey payphone a couple of weeks ago. It just showed the number and “New Jersey”.

I don’t know exactly when this changed but calls from NYC payphones used to show up on caller ID as “PAYPHONE”, followed by the number of the phone. This is no longer true but the appearance of the word “PAYPHONE” on caller ID was never consistent so maybe that identifier will return.

Occasionally a payphone call shows up as “undisclosed_pstn” or “+NoNumber” but I don’t know that those obfuscated caller IDs are unique to payphones.

An element of intrigue that might interest others whose written or visual work includes payphones is that payphone service providers — the folks who own and maintain pay telephones — are able to program the number that shows up on caller ID to whatever they want. As far as I know they cannot program the text portion of caller ID to show up as “PAYPHONE” or something descriptive like “7-11 PAYPHONE” but they can (and frequently do) send out bogus telephone number info. I’ve never understood why they do this, but I was once unwittingly responsible for a payphone service provider being ordered to reprogram thousands of its phones to send out accurate phone numbers to caller ID. On account of the memorable encounter I had with a representative from that company I’ve maintained an interest in this rather obscure matter.

The most commonly used fake caller ID associated with payphones in the U.S. is 702-992-9550. Most calls made today from Boston area payphones show that number, causing many unwitting people to think the person calling is in Las Vegas. It’s a source of confusion and mistrust as people making the calls are accused of being in Vegas when they are actually in a Boston train station or at any number of places across the country. Thousands of U.S. payphones send out 702-992-9550 as caller ID. (Incidentally, the “Who Called Me From 702-992-9550?” story is one of the most frequently viewed pages at the Payphone Project, and has been since I posted it over 2 years ago. I guess these seemingly strange payphone calls continue to ring caller ID enabled phones across the land.)

The discussion of using phone numbers in creative work reminded me of the distractingly unrealistic way filmmakers employ the fictitious 555-555-1234 format when using phone numbers in their movies. Using a number like 702-992-9550 would look more credible than the 555 format, which always annoys me for its obvious lack of realism. Of course if the film is not set in Las Vegas then a new level of inauthentic detail emerges. Still, with a little research I think moviemakers could come up with more clever alternatives to the fictitious 555 format, helping to keep it real for moviegoers should they actually call the number. There are far more pressing issues facing our society but I think it is time for television and movie to come up with more creative approaches to eliminating the 555 blight.


Concord, Vermont. FairPoint Communications Phone Booth.

Erica Avery checks in again with these shots of a phone booth outside a FairPoint Communications building in Concord, Vermont.

Concord, Vermont. April, 2015.
Concord, Vermont. April, 2015.
Concord, Vermont. April, 2015.
Concord, Vermont. April, 2015.

FairPoint announced in 2012 that it would exit the payphone business, selling its assets to Pacific Telemanagement Services (PTS), the nation’s largest payphone service provider. FairPoint’s branding remains on this particular phone so it’s not clear from this vantage point if the company fully exited the business or if PTS simply found no reason to change the logo.

Erica also reports that this old beauty in Randolph, New Hampshire, which appeared to have been granted a reprieve of sorts, has at last been removed.

Randolph, New Hampshire. August, 2011.
Randolph, New Hampshire. August, 2011.

1992: Dave Letterman Calls a Times Square Payphone

David Letterman’s telephone routines are, in my opinion, among the funniest bits he ever did in his 32 years as a late night television host. He called New York City payphones and engaged whoever answered in some sort of chit-chat, but he also called people he could see sitting at their desks in office buildings, his mom, wrong numbers, the Butterball Turkey Hotline, and so on. I don’t know how authentic or unscripted a lot of these calls really were but there was always something tantalizingly random about the connections.

This encounter is not quite as electric as others that I remember but it has its charm, and seems to have captured a genuine passer-by in full candor.

I don’t know when Dave stopped calling payphones but I got a distinct impression at some point that word had been getting out about which payphones he was going to call and at what time. Actors and wannabes glommed on to this and camped out at the payphone, waiting to be hilarious. I don’t have any evidence to back up that claim but at a certain point the spontaneity of these calls seemed to evaporate.

As Dave mentions in this skit, Times Square appears to transform itself any time you blink your eyes. The TKTS booth is still present but overall Fr. Duffy Square looks nothing like it did in May, 1992, when this segment aired. The cluster of three payphones is no longer present. Even if they were it is unlikely they would accept incoming calls as they did back then. The “New York Telephone” brand can still be seen on a small number of payphone enclosures, while the now-poignant “110 stories and just as many entrees” sign advertising Windows On The World cannot.

My favorite line from this bit is near the end. Dave asks the man to look up at the Jumbotron and tell him what he sees. The man says “I see David Letterman,” to which Dave responds “There’s been a terrible mistake”, since the gentleman should be seeing himself — this as a couple of observers videobomb the proceedings.

Thanks to YouTube user antisepticmanor for posting this and other vintage Letterman bits from the early 1990s.


The Payphone Before and After Shot That Got Away

I had a camera on me but my hands were full. The moment passed before I could get coördinated enough to put down 3 shopping bags and draw the camera from my coat pocket.

The missed opportunity involves the gentleman in the photo below, who I caught using a Telebeam payphone about 4 years ago. The payphone was removed in early 2014, as almost every other phone in the area has also vanished.

I thought of this man when the phone went missing, curious if its removal would force him out of the Luddite world and into the cell phone age.

Bearded Man Talking on the Telebeam
Bearded Man Talking on the Telebeam

My answer came last week, when I spotted him again. In what would have made for a perfect “before and after” pair of pictures I spotted him standing on that exact spot in front of where the payphone used to be, and HE WAS TALKING ON A CELL PHONE.

It did not appear that he was standing there as some sort of homage to the phone he had used in the past, or out of habit. He just happened to be on that spot momentarily as he stopped to end his conversation and hang up the phone. The only thing that could have made it more perfect would be if there was a kid walking up behind him with his mouth wide open.

Missed photo opportunities like this are far too frequent. I’ve been gathering pictures of payphones for 20 years (gah!) but have pursued other photo subjects in memory of the one that got away. I once saw a beautiful umbrella buffeted by winds in such a way that it spun like a top on the sidewalk. It spun almost perfectly, with a slight wobble that made it even more sympathetic to me. It’s hard to describe how unexpectedly beautiful a sight this was. It was like ballet.

I had a camera ready but before I could get it on point a woman walking past grabbed the umbrella, folded it up, and stuck it in her granny cart. Curses.

In memory of the umbrella photo that got away I commenced taking as many photos of umbrellas and umbrella carcasses as I could, hoping to one day get a shot that equaled or at least rivaled the one I missed.

Nothing doing. I never even came close.

Before and after images of this man talking on the phone might not have had the surreal beauty of that pirouetting umbrella but it might have illustrated how real people are being forced into the cell phone world as their payphones get taken away, one by precious one.

Click here for more picture of people who still use payphones.


New York City Payphone Locator Revisited

In January I set up the NYC Payphone Locator, seeding it with data released by the city’s DoITT (Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications). This dataset is filled with numerous errors and omissions. Payphones removed years ago still appear, while none of the hundreds of public phones located in subway stations, transit hubs, theaters, and other indoor locations are represented. The lack of indoor payphones does not surprise me — the city does not franchise those payphones — but I found the errors and omissions of outdoor phones puzzling. This map was used in the politicking of LinkNYC, the dead-end program which promises to “replace” the city’s 6,000+ outdoor payphones with modern terminals offering free phone calls in the 50 states and free Wi-Fi.

I found the political buildup of LinkNYC puzzling, particularly the avalanche of rah-rah propaganda from leaders of the New York tech community, some of whom never read a page of the RFP yet offered praise for LinkNYC at the request of the Mayor’s office.

Not having a stomach for the personal indignities of politics I turned my focus instead to the more intriguing idea of cleaning up the map to create a realistic view of how many payphones really exist in New York and how evenly they are distributed. I evaluated several web-based mapping applications which might allow anyone to edit or comment on the status of a payphone that appears on this map.

Two months ago I issued a plea for contributors. It took all of those two months until someone — I’ll call him Richard, because that’s really his name — contacted me to express interest in making some corrections. It took only this one person to get me motivated again. I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for how much this wide-ranging correspondence with Richard means to me, though I’ve also been dogged by sickness and semi-serious injury since January.

Having never settled on a publishing platform I had to revisit the problem of how to do this. Certainly there is no need to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch. At first I imagined hacking together a WordPress map plugin with a “user submitted content” plugin but I just could not find a clear path to make that happen in a way I could efficiently manage. I set up Mediawiki with its maps extensions but found it too thorny for normal people to use.

After purchasing and implementing one disappointing WordPress plugin after another I finally discovered Ushahidi, an inspired open source application developed for the purpose of interactive mapping, or “crowdmapping”, to use the buzzword. Originally intended for use in tracking disaster situations in real time Ushahidi has been adapted for other purposes, including election auditing, sexual harassment tracking, and now payphone locations.

I was enamored of Ushahidi from the get-go but considered it prudent to explore other options. I feel strongly about keeping my web work self-hosted, and at first I also thought it would be efficient to keep this project within the WordPress Multisite install I so painfully implemented last year.

After the disheartening trial and error (emphasis on error) journey through the world of Premium WordPress Plugins I looked outside of that content management system, tepidly exiting the self-hosted realm. There was Wikimapia,’s impressive Map Creator, Google’s Map Maker, Openstreetmaps, the list goes on. Wikimapia and HabitatMap (another highly impressive product were the closest looking setups to what I had in mind but neither explicitly allow self-hosting, and most all of them would likely have issues with me uploading 6,000+ locations.

In the end all roads led to Ushahidi, which I intend to use for other projects. I expect to apply a similar interface to the USPS Mailbox Locator, updating it with latest data and making that gnarly site a little less hideous to look at.

Google’s StreetView is an obvious go-to resource for this endeavor. Bing’s Streetside imagery is frequently superior. Either of these free services offers the ability to drill down to detailed imagery of sidewalks and curbs, and Google’s StreetView even offers the ability to go back in time, proving that payphone(s) really did exist at certain spots, and that some of them have in fact been gone for years.

Neither of these imagery services are 100% foolproof for determining if a payphone has been removed. Phones contained within advertising enclosures are easy to spot but relatively tiny clamshell payphones are often obscured by trucks or buses. Another element of error is that a lot of city blocks have not been “Streetviewed” for years — though Bing’s Streetside is often times more current. Sometimes you just have to visit a location for yourself, as I’ve done a handful of times. It would be awesome if all of New York City just looked out their window and reported in on whether these payphones still exist but on an Internet of twerks and tweats a project like this cannot expect to gain that kind of traction.

The NYC Payphone Locator as it is now known is not limited to New York City. If you know where payphones are in your town anywhere in the U.S. feel free to add them by clicking the SUBMIT A PAYPHONE button and start by finding the city nearest you. It’s all NYC data for now because no large city that I know of has issued an official report of its payphone population.

If you want to report that a phone is gone then all you have to do is leave a comment to that effect and I’ll remove it when I get a chance. Folks like Richard, who want to get under the hood and do things like move location markers to precise spots on the map, add pictures or color commentary, and whatever else are also welcome. You are invited to CONTACT ME for specifics about account creation.


Who Uses Payphones, And Why?

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 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.

South Station Payphones, Boston
South Station Payphones, Boston

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.