NationalStacy M. Brown

The Rise and Fall of an American Essential — The Pay Phone

Remember when? Regardless of whether you are a baby boomer, millennial or Generation Xer, it’s a question that often comes to the forefront.

However, there’s one “remember when” question that will probably stump even the most the progressive Generation Z crowd: Whatever happened to America’s many public pay phones and phone booths?

Wait. What? For at least a century, a pay phone was as crucial as a mailbox. And while coin-operated public telephone first cost five cents before rising to one dime, then a quarter, 35 cents and even 50 cents, few people complained – at least not loudly.
At least you never had to worry about answering a call while driving.

When the beeper or pager alerted the holder that someone needed to reach them, the neighborhood phone booth would be the next stop. (Beepers, or pagers, are now as outdated as the pay phone).

And, like beepers and pagers, virtually no one uses the pay phone anymore.

A recent Pew Research Center report noted that about 96 percent of Americans own cellphones. But like most out-of-date technology, there are still a few pay phones around.

“As someone who is, shall we say, more mature, my memory isn’t as good as it was,” offered entrepreneur Sally Gibson. “Plus, I’m not wonderful with technology.”

But recently she found it necessary to track down a pay phone and the search was on.

“I had gone out to do some shopping but forgotten to take my phone with me. I realized after shopping I had too much to walk home with so I was going to phone for a taxi. Realizing I didn’t have my phone with me, the only other option I could see was using a phone booth for the first time in years.”

John Stevenson, a marketing specialist, said a pay phone recently saved his day.

“I was driving to meet a client when I forgot my mobile phone in the office,” he said. “Fortunately, we still have phone booths on a few streets nearby. I called my subordinate about my concern and saved the time I would have lost going back home. It might be out of style but there are still people who rely on these phone booths.”

According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, roughly 100,000 pay phones remain in the U.S. – down from 2 million in 1999.

While the majority of phones are in New York, the District still has a few public booths in operation including at the Capital One Arena and outside of a few hotels like the Comfort Inn on H Street NW, Dupont Plaza Hotel on New Hampshire Avenue NW and the Days Inn on Connecticut Avenue NW.

Other than the advent of cellphones, what else caused the demise of public pay phones?

A 2017 report in The Atlantic said a “particularly intense lobby for a pay phone ban emerged in Chicago in 1992.  Concerned about a rise in drug trafficking, communities urged lawmakers to get rid of pay phones across the city.

Fast-forward — from 2000 to 2006, the number of cellphones in the U.S. rose from 90.6 million to 217.4 million. In the District in 2011, Metro announced the elimination of most of the 1,074 pay phones in its train stations.

But one caveat cannot be overlooked: Metro once had a lucrative contract with Verizon who provided service for all the phone booths in Metro’s many train stations. Then, total revenue generated from the phones began a steep and steady decline. In 2009, Metro officials said pay phones were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars while the average use declined to about once a day.
The remaining pay phones had become a relic, and to some, something of a prop.

The Jerusalem Post cited Julia Casciotti, a 17-year-old senior at Washington-Lee High School who crammed into a phone booth along with a few girlfriends for photo shoots after sleepovers. Over the years, Casciotti also made pretend calls, “pushing all the buttons and calling the operator.”

“It’s always just been there,” she said while noting that she’s never actually used the pay phone or seen anyone use it either.

But Daniel Leblanc, 22, has seen people drop their coins into the pay phone slot and said it freaked him out. An intern on Capitol Hill who lives in an apartment nearby, he walks by a phone booth on his way to and from the Metro.

Leblanc uses a cellphone and doesn’t have a landline at home like many young people today.

“The couple times I’ve seen people using it, I’ve thought, ‘That is really strange,’“ Leblanc told the newspaper. “Frankly, I wondered, ‘Don’t those people have cellphones?’”

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Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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