Updated: Dec 3, 2019
The humble payphone: For many years, it was a staple of every conceivable public space. Today, they're a vanishing breed. In many areas, spotting a payphone in the wild is now something of a novelty. I keep a lookout for them when I'm traveling, because I've been clinically diagnosed as "weird." I also notice when local ones come up missing, which is generally the case these days. It's true that I have something short of a payphone obsession, and I can tell you why: Payphones are a tangible link to a bygone era, when communication wasn't as free and easy as it is today, and when people didn't take as much for granted. Payphones are quaint and fun, but more importantly, they remind us of where we've been.
It used to be that payphones were the tenuous connection you had to family and friends: You had to find a payphone, and hope they were home to get your call. Looking back, it's a wonder anyone ever got picked up from the mall.
Of course, the '80s were flush with payphones, and great films such as Miracle Mile payed homage to their ever-ready presence. However, the payphone hearkens all the way back to the early 1900s. For generations and indeed lifetimes, the payphone was always there, waiting for that pocket change. Up until the early 2000s, payphones were still a viable industry. My college campus had several of them, all functional, and I graduated in 2003.
On a very small scale, I took a trip with my wife and got some photos of former payphone locations around my area, which will make up the meat of this article. So, let's get this questionable premise started!
Located at a bakery/coffee shop, this payphone kiosk is a lonely testament to analog days gone by. Directly across the street from here is a vintage supermarket and a sorely-missed Chinese take-out place.
The AT&T Long Distance decal on the window was a real treat for this payphone junkie. (The decal was photographed from inside, so that it didn't look like we were taking photos of any customers. That wouldn't be illegal in a public place, but sometimes it's best to not invite trouble.) Thankfully, someone's efforts to peel it off were abandoned. When was the last time you heard someone say "long distance"? Of course, the corporation's name bears testament to another, long-gone vestige of communication, AT&T standing for "American Telephone and Telegraph." The eventual eclipse of the telegraph by the phone should have been obvious even back in the day, so nice job with the company name, AT&T.
Right around the corner from the coffee shop was this sad sight at Sunoco:
And about a block away, in a parking lot, stand these silent sentries:
This is the same parking lot. When you see yellow poles in the ground for seemingly no reason, chances are they once flanked a payphone, protecting it from getting hit by vehicles.
Close to these former phone locations is a McDonald's, which also housed a payphone until the store was remodeled about a year ago. Sadly, no trace of the phone remains. My wife popped in and got an iced coffee at this point, so as not to make us look too suspicious.
Another phone location was spotted at a tire store in town. All six of these phones were within two miles of each other, and there was another one that I couldn't photograph, because it's located in a closed arena with tinted windows. (I must look a freak when I'm out doing this stuff.) Even during the heyday of payphones, this concentration seems to border on over-saturation.
We then ventured to that Mecca of consumerism, the mall. Tragically, it seems as though all of their payphones are no more. Even a year or two ago, they still had a working phone, which I once used to call my dad. One nice thing about being a pessimist is that you're not easily surprised, and I was not optimistic when I approached this phone.
The mall's other phones at the entrances have been shuttered up, their rings silenced forever:
As a sign of the times, the food court's payphone has been replaced by a cell phone recycling kiosk. I remember seeing a high school crush using that phone in the '90s. I tried to talk to her after she hung up, but she didn't want anything to do with me, a trend which would continue until I met my wife in 2015.
I didn't let the lack of payphones ruin my day, setting up this sweet photo op with no external assistance:
By this time, we decided to head back home, tapping out everything our illustrious area had to offer. But, the phone spotting wasn't quite over. I hope you're as excited as I am at the prospect of more vacant space!
We stopped at Wendy's for lunch, but it wasn't all fun and games. I knew this store was once host to a phone, and I had to document it for the article.
Bidding us farewell on our payphone tour were these gas stations:
Hold the line! We've got a working payphone here! I remembered it being up and running a couple of years ago. (Yes, I periodically check payphones.) I was only semi-surprised it was still functional; it's right across the street from a hospital.
Lastly, this Domino's used to be a convenient store called Parson's Stop and Go. During that time, there was a phone attached to the building. The location once had a "Phone" sign on the white awning, but it's been lost to the ages. Just after taking these photos, I saw some little kid inside the store watching me and freaking out. A few seconds later, the store manager came out, along with a burly dude. They both started to approach the car, at which point I made a hasty exit. What's a road trip without some adventure?
Here's some bonus content worth phoning home about!
Unlike my area, large cities still have droves of payphones, many of which are operational. Often it's cheaper to make international calls from them, and the phones are used by the homeless. Also, the chance of an emergency is higher in densely-populated areas, so payphones in cities serve partly as a public service for 911 calls. Payphones see huge spikes in usage when cellular service is out. When Adrienne and I visited NYC in 2016 to get her engagement ring at Tiffany's, I was in payphone paradise.
We went to Tokyo for the honeymoon. After collapsing upon arrival at the hotel, we woke up at about five in the morning, Japan time. We felt like a million bucks, and hit the streets immediately. We found a 7-11 two blocks away, and ate the best sushi we've ever had. Right outside the store was one of Japan's famous green payphones. I'm not sure why I have the exact same expression as in the above photo. I guess it just proves that no matter where you are, you're always the same person. Yeah, that sounds good.
Japanese payphones can use a pre-paid card, many of which are printed with anime and video game characters. (If you care, you can see the phone's card slot, right under the cord in the above photo.) I've owned the card below since 1999, as a collectible. Japanese phone cards expire after one year, so mine was probably useless when I got it.
Our local 7-11 doesn't sell sushi. Even if it did, I'm sure it wouldn't come close to any 7-11 in Japan. However, it does contain the yellow post signs of a payphone.
And here's the grand finale (or maybe "finally"): I have my own payphone at home! It runs on magicJack, and it's located in my arcade! I reprogrammed my Protel 7000 to work without coins. Did you catch that? Seven thousand. That's almost five thousand years from now! Long live the payphone.
UPDATE: Contributing Retro Injection blogger Luke Worle found this relic we'd somehow missed.