“Please deposit twenty-five cents,” the recording said.
Argh. Wedging the handset against my shoulder with my cheek, I fumble for change in my right pant pocket. I can identify the coins with the touch of my fingertips. There’s a couple of pennies, the ridged, thin edge of a dime, the fat, smooth edge of a nickel, and then, the welcome feel of a large disc with a serrated edge. A quarter.
I insert the quarter in the slot, and the phone registers it with a couple of electronic chirps. The female voice recording says politely, “Thank you.”
Around me the traffic hums. In the distance, a homeless man yells. Two women laugh as they walk, their heels clip-clopping on the sidewalk. There’s a slight breeze. Every now and then, I plug my other ear with my palm to block the city noise, and speak louder so that my friend can hear me. There’s trash on the sidewalk around the phone booth, and I sort through it aimlessly with the tip of my shoe while I hold my conversation. In the back of my mind I wonder if I’ll find anything cool, like a love letter, a suicide note, or even a wad of cash. Today, I have no such luck.
The phone’s handset is black and heavy, with small chips, scratches and dings on it from who knows how many years of usage. Some people may have dropped it accidentally. Others may have smashed it against the booth in anger or rage.
The handset reeks of the city. The receiver’s mouthpiece is grimy with the breath, spit and bacteria of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Some of its small, perforated sound holes are clogged with unknown urban scum. Yet I rest my chin upon it, with my lips so dangerously close to the grimy kiss of the streets. As horrendous as it sounds, the populace and their germs is the last thing on my mind.
The metal of its coiled cord is musty with age, moisture and oxidation. All these metal pay phones have this peculiar smell, one of the metal’s reaction to the elements. It’s hard to describe, yet only pay phones have it. Or so that’s what I know.
Our conversation ends after we say what we have to say. I hang up, and just for good measure, push down the lever for the coin return. I’m not supposed to get any change back, but once in a great while, for some unknown, magic reason, some free coins will actually drop down into the return chute. So, with every pay phone call I make, I try it. It’s like, some kind of feel-good gamble.
The year was 1989.
Image from L.A. Times article, Dial N for Nostalgia: Is anyone still using pay phones?