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:
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.
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.