A day in the life of a payphone

A public phone booth on a street in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for proposals to turn underused phone booths into Wi-Fi hot spots. If successful, the program would create one of the largest free public wi-fi networks in the country. 

The highest earning payphone in Manhattan is a few blocks from Times Square, smack in the shadow of the Port Authority bus terminal and the New York Times building.

The payphone sits in a metal kiosk, where you can lean in and hide your face. The payphone has been busy all morning, but not for making phone calls. People use the kiosk to talk on cell phones, light cigarettes, count money – it offers a nook of privacy in a crowded city.

No other city has the payphones that New York has, says Stanley Shor, who oversees payphone companies at the city’s Department of Information Technology and Innovation. Boston, for instance, has less than 1,000 payphones. New York has nearly 10,000 of them.

“We walk and talk -- a lot,” says Shor.

But that’s not the only reason. In the '90s, payphone companies started putting ads on their kiosks. Payphones popped up everywhere just when people stopped using them. In peak years, more than 30,000 public payphones stood on the streets of New York. “You wouldn't be able to get that many billboards without the payphone,” says Shor.

In the last decade, many public phones were removed to make way for building construction. Still, the city has an enormous network of payphones – infrastructure Mayor Bill de Blasio could  piggyback on to create what would be the biggest public Wi-Fi network in the country.

By using a historic part of New York’s street fabric,” the mayor said in a public statement, “we can significantly enhance public availability of broadband access and increase revenue to the city—all at absolutely no cost to taxpayers.”

The city has called for proposals to turn the payphone kiosks into Wi-Fi hubs. The phones, or at least some of them, would be kept in place for 911 calls. If the plan is a success, other major cities could follow New York’s lead.

Today, the city does make money off its public phones. Payphone companies give New York City 10 percent of the money they earn from calls made on the phones and 36 percent of the ad revenue. Last year, that added up to 17 million dollars for the city. 

The highest-earning payphone – the one near Times Square – earned the city about $500 last quarter, according to Shor’s records.

Eventually, a person with a cracked cellphone tries to use the payphone, but it turns out to be broken. The city does not install or repair payphones. That is the job of payphone companies. They spend about $60 a month on every phone.

Nobody keeps track of who is actually using the phones. That is, except for Mark Thomas.

“It’s everybody,” says Thomas, “It’s little kids, it’s old people, it’s well-dressed people, shady-looking people, a lot of tourists.”

Thomas knows because he has been taking photos of these people – with their faces artfully hidden, of course. For the past 20 years, he ran the Payphone Project, where he studies all aspects of public phones.

“I actually love the smell of a filthy payphone,” Thomas says, “I’ve noticed sometimes you can smell a mix of one man’s cologne with a cigar – all these odd, disparate scents all come together on a public phone.”

Thomas is working on a book about the history and culture of payphones.

It is now the middle of the afternoon. After hours of watching people not even trying to use the payphone, I meet a young man in a red sweatshirt named Wavey.

Wavey has been standing at the corner, watching me watch the payphone. He and a group of co-workers have been using public phones across the street. Then they discretely hand off little parcels to the black SUV’s that roll by us every few minutes.

The guys here say payphones are essential to their line of work. Wavey, for one, doesn’t even own a cellphone.

“If I’m doing business,” he explains, “I’m going to use a payphone, ‘cause I don’t want nobody to get on my line.”

The problem with using the payphone for this kind of ‘business’? Sometimes your own customers get in the way.

“It’s a lot of corrupted people out here,” Wavey says, “Like drug users who try to break the phones so they could take all the money out so they can get their little drugs.”

The group’s advice to Mayor de Blasio: sure, put Wi-Fi in the payphone kiosks – just don’t forget to take out those tempting coin slots.

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