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.
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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.

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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.

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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, Here.com’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.

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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 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.

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.

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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 />
Payphones?

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 />
Payphones?

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 />
Payphones?

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 />
Payphones?

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 />
Payphones?

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
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