An Urgency of Pay Phones

A few days ago, I was driving south on U.S. 1 in SoFLA when I spotted a run-down convenience store, windows obscured with hand-lettered signs in Spanish, and the sight triggered a memory of a day when I had stopped at that very place to call my ex-husband Pretty Boy Boyd to draw a bead on his level of sobriety before continuing home.

I don’t remember the conversation, but I’m pretty sure it was an emotional one, as so many of our pay-phone calls tended to be. In fact, I now believe that the correct term for a group of pay phones should be “urgency.” Yes, an urgency of pay phones. When dormant and unused, as they typically are today, they seem so benign, but did you ever really need to find one? Did you ever scramble for change on the floor of the pick-up truck and focus all your homing instincts on a pay phone?

The first one would be out of order, and the second one would be unavailable, its attention fully given over to that enormous woman you always saw at Wal-Mart, wearing a flower-strewn sundress on the first day of spring. Finally, you pull up to one, run to the phone with the truck engine still growling, and make the call. Yes, urgency.

At the same time, you might talk in a low voice, barely above a whisper, at least at an outside phone. Now, the cell-phone generation shares everything with the immediate neighborhood, but those conversations are simply not that interesting to me: “Guess where I am?” or “What kind of milk did you want?” or “What do you mean it’s my turn to drive the carpool?” Mundane, at best.

Overheard pay phone conversations tend to be better stories, and I love a good story. (Otherwise, I probably never would have gotten married, but I wanted to continue to follow the narrative thread.)

For example, early one morning, walking by the Walgreen’s in South Beach before dawn, I saw a tall, dark-haired, mini-skirted woman leaning desperately into the pay phone: “You don’t understand,” she was saying, “they made the buildings too tall in Miami. You really don’t understand. All the buildings are sinking! Listen to me!”

I’ve always wished I had loitered there longer to hear more, but I could feel the story calling to me. What if I had stayed and offered my help? Where would I be now?

Yes, an urgency, compounded by knowing that once she hung up, the contact would be lost. She had to know she had one chance to make her point. If she called again, the person on the other end might not answer, and there are no call-backs on pay phones today.

There was a time, though, when pay phones were more aggressive than they are now. They would ring out at random intervals, beckoning passers-by to answer. “Sylvia?” the voice would say. “Sylvia? Are you there?” She wasn’t. Or maybe you would be the one hunkered down nearby, waiting for the call, growling at anyone else, saying, “Hey! Don’t be long! I’m expecting a call.” Bloody fist fights have broken out over less.

Picture a cell phone on a table. Doesn’t do much for you emotionally, does it? Now picture a pay phone, the receiver dangling, a soft voice calling out, “Hello? Hello? Dave?” Imagine a reporter calling in a story on a cell phone. Nope. Doesn’t happen. Blog it in on the smart phone. Now drop back to the guy in the fedora sitting in the wood and glass booth: “Hello, city desk? Give me rewrite!” (I always wanted to do that.)

Where would Superman and Dr. Who be without phone booths?

Then again, from the other end of the line, snuggled up comfortably at home, you might have to struggle to make out the spoken words against the backdrop of jukebox and bar noise: “I need you to come get me right now” or “Don’t hold supper for me” or “Jimmy says ger flog and we mast up to la overture.” No, I don’t miss receiving those calls at all, but I will confess to having made maybe one or two. I probably still owe your second-cousin Darnell an apology for that night I called from a truck stop in Kansas and woke him up at 2:00 a.m. for reasons that now escape us both.

So why do I want a pay phone at the pie shop? Perhaps this is part of my move toward the steampunk lifestyle, or maybe I’m just nosey and want to overhear better stories.

I’m thinking maybe an old style black one, with a rotary dial, inside by the front door, within easy earshot of the cash register. I promise I’ll always give you change if you need it, and I’ll even keep a pencil on a string and a pad of paper near by. From time-to-time, I’ll leave a some dimes & nickels in the coin return for the kids to claim.

Out by the road, though, I want a real phone booth, under the solitary street lamp.

When we are basking in the warm glow of the pie-shop lights, inhaling the warm scent of apples and cinnamon, we can look out there and remember all the pay phone calls of our old solitary lives, and remind ourselves how lucky we are to have each other, face-to-face, right here, right now.

And maybe on the jukebox, we’ll listen to The Coast is Clear, or perhaps Joan Baez singing Diamonds and Rust: “Where are you calling from? A booth in the midwest.”

That line still tugs at my heart. What about you? What’s your pay-phone story? Have a seat at the counter, and tell me all about it.

Remember, at the Slice of Heaven Pie Shop and Driving Range, we’re here for you, 24 hours a day.