Ode To The Payphone


Every now and then, when I’m caught in the rain or when I’ve left my cell phone at home for no discernable reason, I think of you. I see you here and there, when I visit the old neighborhood, but it’s not the same. Our run-ins are few and far between, and as I see less and less of you hovering around in blue clusters, I’m certain that you’re going to disappear altogether.

I used to sit in front of the television for hours collecting phone numbers – the Psychic Hotline, 1-800-MATTRES (leave off the last ‘S’ for savings, remember?), The Sally Jesse Raphael Show – any phone number that scrolled across my screen was fair game. I’d meet you on the corner outside of the bodega, gripping a sheet of loose-leaf paper in one hand, a pen in the other.

I’d pick you up and dial each number on my list, one by one. “Your commercial said I could have a free mattress for 30 days, is that correct? What happens if I don’t want it after 30 days?” The voice on the other line would bark, “Put your mother on the phone.” I hung up and drew a straight black line – 1-800-MATTRES.

I called 211. 311. 411. 511. 611. 711. 811. Then I’d stop. I’d call for a free two-minute reading from Miss Cleo, and then I’d call her competitors. Psychic Circle. Psychic Readers Network. Psychic Solution. I figured if I got a bunch of free two-minute readings, it’d equal out to one full reading. Then everything would make sense.

It’s funny, how I needed you back then. I tried to use the phone at my parent’s house, but Caller ID took away the anonymity that was integral to my flying beneath the radar. People started calling back. Operators. Angry phone jockeys demanding to speak with my parents. “I don’t have parents,” I’d say in a small voice. Then I’d hang up and continue collecting phone numbers.

You started to change. I’d get multicolored emails from my dad that said, “DON’T LET YOUR CHILDREN TOUCH THE PAYPHONE, PEOPLE LEAVE NEEDLES AND ANTHRAX ALL OVER THE PAYPHONES, SERIOUSLY.” Naturally, I was upset. How else was I supposed to collect the spare change that sometimes settled in your returned coin slot? Who were these people talking trash about you? Did they not see the episode of Saved by the Bell when Zack leaves money for his homeless girlfriend’s dad in a payphone coin slot (in the bathroom at the mall… that part didn’t make much sense, but whatever)? Your returned coin slot is used for good, not evil. I knew that, but they didn’t.

I moved away for a few years, my parents traded the drug-addled payphones of Brooklyn for the drug-addled teenagers of suburbia. I’d come visit and find you desecrated with graffiti. Sometimes, strange men slept inside of you and I’d think, “This is not how it’s supposed to be.”

And now? People walk around talking to themselves, black wireless devices shoved in their ears like some kind of Twilight Zone hearing aid. You’d laugh at them, if you weren’t an inanimate object. I miss that sense of humor you had. Remember all those times you ate my coins for no apparent reason? I’ll admit it – it honestly wasn’t funny then. It was kind of inconvenient and annoying. But it’s water under the bridge, as they say.

Anthrax or no, I’ll remember you and your vague surface-slime fondly.

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image – Ryan Tir