It stood just outside the box office, next to a heavy mahogany stand marked Western Electric, with slots for telephone books: Staten Island, Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx, Brooklyn. When we arrived, in April of our theater year, the phone in the booth still functioned. Hardly anyone ever used it. It sported a dial phone, though touch-tone technology had been around since 1963.
One day, a boy came to the box office window, complaining to Yvette — on shift behind the bars, “That phone don’t work!”
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
“I push the numbers ‘an nothing happens!”
Seems the kid was pushing on the numbers embedded in the rotary dial. 1963 was, by that time, thirteen years in the past, and — despite the fact that there were still rotary phones around — he hadn’t encountered any (after all, the mean age of our patrons was probably twelve or thirteen). Such frustration with outmoded technology may be the reason an angry unobserved customer tore the receiver off the phone one night in July, rendering it useless. I called New York Telephone (in those days, the service provider also installed and maintained the hard-wired equipment), only to learn that the utility didn’t think it was worthwhile replacing a phone that had only netted $6.50 in three months (we were supposed to get thirteen percent of that six fifty, or a fast eighty-five cents).
So the phone passed into obsolescence, and — with Superman nowhere in sight — the booth was largely a relic. Still, it served a few odd functions. At least once, a young patron — hoping to spend the night and raid the candy stand — hid out inside, scrunching down below seat level. The booth door was suspiciously closed — he was discovered and escorted out the door.
Wooden phone booths and church confessionals have something in common. I was reminded of this on several occasions, involving one member of the management staff, who also happened to be an investor in our failing enterprise. On more than one occasion, I came out of my office under the stairs and spied a pair of legs sticking out of the phone booth. They belonged to my comrade-in-arms, sitting in the booth, on the velvet seat, his hands in the pockets of his hoodie, for warmth.During the hard dark fall and winter which followed our disastrous cash-poor spring and summer seasons, he must have found solace in the booth, even if there was no priest to hear his story.
- 1. Check out This American Life's episode (Really Long Distance) about a very special telephone booth.
- There are currently only four phone booths left in New York City, according to the New York Times — all of them on the Upper West Side. The last remaining booths can all be found on West End Avenue at 66th Street, 90th Street, 100th Street and 101st Street. Don’t neglect the above link, which contains the story of an obsessed citizen who, until recently, campaigned to keep the booth in his neighborhood there and open for business.
- Peter Ackerman, author of the children’s book, The Lonely Phone Booth, observes that, “They’re like mini-theaters. You can walk by and see people laughing in there, crying in there, and you couldn’t hear them, so you could project your own stories onto them.” So our phone booth was a theater within a theater, I guess.
- This post originally appeared on 10/12/16 in a slightly different version. The pandemic has created a longing in me for some kind of sanctuary, though confessionals and phone booths are definitely off-limits for the time being...