Payphone Road Trip!

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

NYC payphone.
I'm totally standing in a no standing zone. We've got a certified baddie here, folks.

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.

Payphone kiosk in a coffee shop.
This was the first photo we took on our payphone road trip. We were at the coffee shop anyway, so I figured it was a great time to stop procrastinating on this article, which I had planned for some time.

AT&T Long Distance Service decal.
It was the first nice day in what seemed to be years.

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:

Empty payphone kiosk.
How many drug deals were set up here?

And about a block away, in a parking lot, stand these silent sentries:

Empty payphone kisok in a parking lot.
The heading on the yellow sticker reads "Free calls." It's mainly a prayer request line. I once called this number at a Wal-Mart payphone, just before getting married. You left a recording with your request, and that was it. That Wal-Mart phone is now gone. It was in another city, so it's not included in this article.

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.

Always be on the lookout for those yellow posts! Unless you have something better to do.

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.

McDonald's wall.
Posting a photo of a wall is the true test of confidence in your writing.

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.

Former payphone at a tire garage.

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.

Bell Atlantic payphone at a mall.
Note the "Bell Atlantic" sticker on receiver. Founded in 1984, it was part of the original Bell System. Verizon ate up Bell Atlantic on July 3, 2000. It's a miracle this decal is still present and legible.

Yes, that is a calculator watch. And no, I'm not a hipster. My math really is that bad.

The mall's other phones at the entrances have been shuttered up, their rings silenced forever:

Former payphone location at a mall.

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.

Cell phone recycling kiosk.

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!

Grossman's Bargain Outlet
On the left-hand side of this store...

… is the only evidence you need. That pattern of holes is the sign of a payphone. I'm sure you could have gone the rest of your life without knowing that.

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.

Former payphone in a Wendy's restaurant.
This payphone was originally outside, before the dining room area expanded way back when. People have stuffed straw wrappers in the holes. Inspired.

Topps Friendly Markets interior.
This supermarket was a major player, with a phone on both ends of the entrance. After they were removed, I tried to get one of the kiosks. The store manager gave me the number of the vendor, and I left a message. I never heard back, and when I returned to the store a few days later, the kiosks were gone.

Payphone kiosk holes in Topps grocery store.
I took a photo of