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Yesteryear’s Memories: Ten Cents, Please


We used to check them for leftover change when we were kids. It seemed that there were pay phones everywhere back then. There were three near my grade school — two were in stores and one was one in the aluminum and glass phone booth on the corner. I went by where it stood just the other day, and the concrete square is still there even though the booth is long gone. It made me sad, in a way. I thought about how many calls had been made on that phone. The calls to parents; to husbands and wives; to work. I remember using that pay phone to call my seventh grade classmate’s house to meet him for a bicycle ride. It was a unique experience using one of those booths. It was all glass, but somehow gave you the feeling of privacy. The doors had a certain way of opening and closing as they folded in or out, and there seemed to always be a wasp or bee in the summer. The handsets were made to withstand the abuse of countless customers, bratty kids, or angry people arguing about who knows what. I didn’t worry about germs as a kid, but I do remember smelling cologne or perfume on the equipment at times. That disgusted me more than the thought of the germs smeared all over the mouthpiece. The cords had flexible metal coverings so they couldn’t be easily ripped away from the main body of the phone. There was always a mechanism to hold a phone book, although half the time the book had been ripped out or was wet.

In the 60s and 70s, there were millions of pay phones across the country. People even made sure they carried an extra dime in case they needed to make a call. A car breakdown or a sudden rainstorm may make it necessary to call someone. I wonder how many calls were made to get a job. How many were made to announce the arrival of a new baby. Desperate calls to police. How many tearful breakups were done on those phones. If music is any indication how much pay phones are part of our culture, it shows in the song by Doctor Hook, “Sylvia’s Mother,” which is about the frustration of a breakup, while the operator keeps asking for “forty cents more for the next three minutes.” Jim Croce sang about the “Operator” as he tried to call his ex-lover, Bob Dylan and The Band made “Long Distance Operator,” and Travis Tritt handed over a quarter to “Call Someone Who Cares!” Electric Light Orchestra had “Telephone Line” — (can’t you just let it ring a little longer?) There are more.

I suppose the pay phone and phone booths are just another of the many things that are almost gone from our world. I can’t help thinking about how objects are kind of like animals that have become extinct. All that’s left is the fossils and the bones. Wandering around in an old abandoned building, you may stumble upon the remains of a pay phone, or you may see the footprint of concrete — the only thing that remains of that instrument of past times. Somehow it just isn’t the same having a phone in your pocket. I miss the little tinkle of a bell when you insert a dime and talking to a human to try the call one more time. And I guess I’ll never find that leftover dime in the coin return slot.

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