Two nights in Atlantic City, New Jersey, turned up a few payphone sightings along the way. This was a vacation, so I did not commit substantial energies to payphone hunting. These are the payphones I spotted en route to Resorts, Taj Mahal, Caesars, and the fewer and fewer surviving casinii of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Click the picture to enter full screen mode, then click the X to go *really* full screen.
Photo from the book New York, by Bill Harris, published in 1979 by Mayflower Press. Amazon.com’s product description for this underrated book is hilariously off base. This is a coffee table picture book of New York in the 1970s, but at present Amazon describes “New York” as an “interactive workbook designed to entertain, teach and stimulate children to learn more about the area where they live…” Not even close, Amazon!0
Who is he? Who was he calling? Did he want someone to know he survived? Or does this photo capture one man’s moment of dreadful anticipation that the person he wanted to reach would never answer the phone again? What was he thinking behind those leery eyes? These questions arise when presented with Jason Florio’s photo of a man using a payphone near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
According to the wristwatch on the man’s hand (and consistent with the photographer’s timeline) this picture was taken at 10:15am, 16 minutes after the World Trade Center’s South Tower had collapsed. 13 minutes later the North Tower fell. It is possible but not certain that the taller structure in the background of this picture captures the North Tower’s final minutes as flame and smoke curdled down its sides.
Before discovering Mr. Florio’s work I had never actually seen a photo of someone using a payphone near the World Trade Center on that day. The Village Voice, reporting on its blog from lower Manhattan, said “Block-long lines formed at payphones” when wireless signals went dead on 9/11. Somehow imagery of this had eluded me.
Jason Florio’s photo puts a disarmingly personal face on the individuals who survived the attacks of 9/11, the draconian “security” chaos of the years to come, and the amorphous “demographic” (if one can call it that) of people who simply need to make a phone call in an emergency.
Since 9/11 I have seen countless references to the cellular meltdown of that day as a signal event which validated the expense of keeping money-losing public pay telephones in operation. Unlike more modern forms of telephony a traditional landline telephone (with its copper-based technology) can generally be expected to work when power goes out. At insignificant expense to tax payers it seems that a quantity of payphones could be subsidized by state and local governments as a public utility, saving these communication portals from the stigma of not being profitable.
Defense of pay telephones’ relevance in America’s cell-phone saturated society typically cites disaster scenarios such as 9/11, the northeast blackout of 2003, the east coast earthquake of 2011, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Indeed, the “Block-long lines formed at payphones” noted by the Village Voice in 2001 have appeared a number of times since 9/11 as blackouts and superstorms (and who knows what will come next?) crippled modern forms of telecommunications while the traditional, more primitive landline survived.
But disasters come in all shapes and sizes, from earthquakes and terror attacks to street muggings and simply losing your cell phone. The wholesale routing of public telephones for their lack of profitability creates public safety risks when one’s inability to make a phone call is tantamount to a lifeline severed.
We do not know the identity of the man in the photo. We know not who he was calling, or what he needed to hear or say.
We do know that he had a better chance of making that phone call on September 11, 2001, then he would on this date of September 11, 2014.
This payphone stands on Vesey Street today. This is not the phone seen in Jason Florio’s photo, but it is among the few remaining payphones in the area of the World Trade Center that you might turn to in an emergency.
Unfortunately, you would be out of luck. When I picked up this phone’s handset last week it had no dial tone. The phone was completely dead.
Good luck reaching an outside world during your next disaster.2