Phone Booth Sex Appeal: The Allure of the “Ancient” Pay Phone

Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's "The Birds"—in a phone booth.

***

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled into the Sunoco gas station that’s located across the street from me to fill up. My kids were in the back of the car; I put the nozzle in and jumped back into the driver’s seat because it was so frigid. Directly across from me was something you don’t see every day: a man using a pay phone.

“Look, kids,” I said, almost in shock over the reality of someone actually using an almost extinct product. “See that man? He’s using the pay phone. You don’t see that much anymore.”

My kids leaned forward and glared out the front window, watching him talk on the pay phone as he dug deeper into his pockets looking for change.

“Did you used to use pay phones, Mommy?” my son asked.

The innocence of the question made me chuckle. Bless his heart. He thought there’d always been a cellular phone attached to my palm.

“Yes, Love,” I said. “I used to use pay phones all the time.”

(Pause: This is where you sigh and remember something funny or cute or nostalgic you did with a pay phone or in a phone booth.)

Oh my, how things have changed.

Everything’s so transparent now. We know or can recognize every phone number that rings our cell. You can’t crank call anyone anymore because they’ll know who it is by the number. And the idea of “stepping outside” to finish a conversation doesn’t have the same allure as stepping into a phone booth. Behind that walled, glass or plastic booth, you didn’t actually know what was being said unless you were a trained lip reader. Things really did, literally happen, behind closed doors.

There was a certain sex appeal to a phone booth. A mystery, if you will. In older films, stars would run into phone booths, close the door behind them, and insert coins with a “click, click, dink” to make that secret phone call. Clark Kent dodged into phone booths and emerged as the Man of Steel. There were even people who would dare to “go for a romp” in one. (This is pretty much a G-Rated site, so I can’t go into much more detail where that is concerned. Luckily, however, you have a vibrant imagination and can envision of what I speak).

I grew up in a waterfront community near Annapolis, Maryland. We had two docks—a sailboat dock and a powerboat dock. Each dock had a little hut with a pay phone in it. When I wanted to talk to a boyfriend in private or dish with a girlfriend and not worry that my parents would overhear the conversation (yes, mom, I did do this…), I would ride my bike to the dock, plunk some money into the pay phone, and converse, sometimes for a while, or at least until someone came along and wanted to use the phone. There were times you would have to wait in line for it. Also, you never really considered the inordinate amount of germs that were all over it (no Purell back then), nor did you take notice of the large spiders and spider webs that had been created by the eight-legged creatures in the upper corners of the booth. You were on a mission, and that was the place to do it.

Now we’ve turned into a society where, if we leave our cell on the kitchen table for only a few minutes, it’s as if we’ve left one of our limbs behind. We start to sweat and panic: “Where is my phone?”

In the “old days,” we didn’t need to be communicating every second, which made the appeal and curiosity grow when a person entered a phone booth and shut the door behind him. Mystique.

That’s what cell phones lack today. Mystique.

It’s rumored that in New York City there are only a handful of phone booths left. They are going the way of the dinosaur, and I, for one, will be sad to see them go.

*** Note: This piece would not have been written had the idea not been sparked by conversations over dinner on Saturday night with my husband, Marty, and Mariana. We laughed at ourselves when we all whipped out our cell phones at Bibiana in Washington, D.C., and marveled at our reliance on them as we checked on babysitters and sports scores and argued about Twitter’s purpose. We then reminisced about the “good ‘ole days” when we crank called our swim clubs, friends, and even teachers…ah, those were the days. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Phone Booth Sex Appeal: The Allure of the “Ancient” Pay Phone

  1. Love this post. I remember being at the pool or school and having to call for a ride from the pay phone. The ultimate phone booth story was when Val Murray and I, at 18, locked our keys in the car in a tiny liquor store in DC while buying St. Paulie Girl on New Year’s Eve. We had to wait for two hours until my sister got there to save us. No one had cell phones and it took us sooo long to get a hold of someone to help. That would never happen with cell phones. Every time I passed that liquor store on New York Ave, I remember the time I had to use the phone booth outside. It is no longer there but the store is.

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